I'm sorry to hear that you've had such awful experiences. However, I don't think we should be so quick to make such a blanket judgment (either like the original unqualified statement, or like the second minimally qualified statement).
For one thing, I think you are working with a unduly narrow understanding of what constitutes a bribe. It need not be sort of thing where someone who is clearly looking to commit a crime and wants to avoid criminal punishment pays off law enforcement to look the other way. It might be something more analogous to slipping the host at a restaurant a twenty to get a good table. Is there really a hard and fast distinction to be made between a tip, which is in many contexts considered mandatory (socially, if not morally) and a bribe?
I've even heard that in some places in the US it is standard practice in commercial construction to "bribe" various inspectors to ensure that they complete their inspections asap (when there is need for the rush). Perhaps the OP was working to get a school built and the circumstances dictated that if he didn't get X done by a certain time the project would have fallen behind/through.
I'm not saying these sorts of actions are undoubtedly acceptable, but I wouldn't immediately jump to the conclusion that they (and everything like them) are obviously immoral in all contexts.
To the OP, my thought is that if you can both show the character traits you are wanting to show, and perhaps make the reader question previously held moral beliefs, that would be a fantastic personal statement.
Yes, there is a very simple and clear distinction between a tip and a bribe. And it is ridiculous to claim there is not or encourage OP to follow this track. Maybe he will understand my strong wording previously through this sort of thing. I knew someone would come by and try to convince him this was in fact a good idea.
A tip can be given to any private individual for any reason you can think of without repercussions. You are asking them to use freely available private resources or connections for your benefit. It is their choice to do so or not. A bribe is given to a public official in order to encourage them to use PUBLIC resources to benefit unfairly a private individual (you and themselves) - that is the distinction. That is why it corrupts and destroys public institutions that are intended to serve the community.
The contracting you cite as an example in the US is CORRUPTION and ILLEGAL. Condoning it as an aspiring attorney is seriously disturbing, and points precisely to the inherent problems with your relativistic, anything goes logic. If its common practice and "necessary" it is ok. That logic has been the death of many legal "stars." Follow it and you are setting yourself up for a quick rise and a quick fall, that eventually puts you in the ranks of many others who have progressively undermined the esteemed profession of law. If you are performing illegal acts, but giving millions of those fat cat dollars to charitable projects every year it is justified? Ask Scott Rothstein of Fort Lauderdale.
Yes, I think whatever your ends, engaging in the sort of "its ok for me, its not ok for others" logic is precisely described in your school example. It is not for you to reason what is "acceptable" or "unacceptable" forms of corruption. That is why countries have legal systems. If it is illegal, it should not be engaged in (especially by a foreigner), even if it is widely held social practice. If its legal, its not a bribe, its a fee. Most respectable aid regimes have long ago pulled out all but the most basic provisions of life-sustaining medical and food needs for countries where this is so endemic they can not function, precisely because it creates a disastrous prospect that only benefits the corrupt. You want to know why people, good strong people with high morals and ideals, come whimpering back from stints in the Congo or Afghanistan? Talk to one about bribes. Paying bribes to get a school opened is short-sighted and naive. So you pay the bribe today to get it built, you set up a patron-client relationships of dependency for eternity. Next you need a bribe to allow each student to attend classes, then you need a bribe to turn the water on each morning or get electricity from the public grid or build your own generator. Pretty soon, the school is bankrupt and obsolete. It is stripped by the local corrupt officials and sold through their businesses to profit themselves. Meanwhile you are back in the US proud of your perseverance in getting such an important project off the ground. The sort of development "logic" you are championing in your post as moral is actually futile and archaic. I have yet to meet someone with actual professional and long-term experience in developing countries who would not agree - EXCEPT in cases of direct bodily harm and provision of basic resources to prevent death: medicine and food supplies in war-torn countries for civilians, etc. where there is typically no state anyhow to collect bribes. Even in those cases, it is being hotly debated, as simply perpetuating conflict and undermining locals seeking to reform the state. You can not kid yourself by maintaining a willfully myopic view of the situation - in many countries this is an endemic and sustained cultural problem that has serious consequences for the ability of people to create a future for their children. I can't tell you how many meetings I have sat in with officials decrying the plague of corruption that has beset their country, who are just as culpable but able to justify their corruption as being necessary because everyone else is doing it. Is it really a question of why its "plague"?
PS- I would not consider my experiences in these countries, including the one I mentioned as "awful." Frightening yes, but par for the course in many of the places I have lived and traveled. My point was that in the situations where a bribe might actually be warranted, the last thing on your mind is determination unless its the determination to live.