Corruption Advice Worse Than No Advice

About a decade ago, the world witnessed a corruption eruption. As democratic winds swept the world, the dirty deals of once unaccountable bureaucrats came out into the open. During the Cold War, kleptocracies often traded their allegiance to one of the two superpowers for that superpower’s countenance of their thievery.

With the superpower contest over, such corrupt bargains have dried up, and, thanks to the information revolution, if there is even a hint of corruption at the highest levels, it quickly becomes global news.

Once people learned that so many politicians had been on the take, often in cahoots with business leaders, it was only natural that there would be a public outcry for a war on corruption. Countries enacted anticorruption legislation, corporations adopted stern codes of conduct, and nongovernmental organisations were launched to name and shame countries into action. National watchdog agencies, complete with powerful anticorruption czars, sprouted everywhere.

Corruption scandals entangled seemingly untouchable former heads of state around the world, and an unprecedented number of top government officials and business executives were ousted or jailed. If one was running for office and challenging a powerful incumbent, she almost certainly ran a “clean hands” campaign, labelling her opponent as a fixture of the old order. For those in the trenches, the crowning event of this war was the 2003 United Nations Convention against Corruption, endorsed by more than 100 countries.

Unfortunately, recent reports from the front lines are not encouraging. The last 10 years have been deeply disappointing, experts agree.

Much was done, but not much was accomplished.

What is being done is not working. In fact, it may be hurting. Today, the war on corruption is undermining democracy, helping the wrong leaders get elected and distracting societies from facing urgent problems.

Corruption has too easily become the universal diagnosis for a nation’s ills.

If the culture of graft and greed could only be curtailed, it is told, many other intractable problems would easily be solved.

Although it is true that corruption can be crippling, putting an end to the bribes, kickbacks, and payoffs will not necessarily solve any of the deeper problems that afflict societies.

In fact, this false belief can make it harder, if not impossible, to rally public support for other indispensable public efforts. Necessary tax reforms, for example, become impossible to pass when the general assumption is that any new public revenues will inevitably evaporate in corrupt hands.

The corruption obsession also crowds out the debate on other crucial problems. A country’s bankrupt educational system, malfunctioning hospitals, or stagnating economy cannot compete with headlines about a corruption scandal. These problems may be aggravated by corruption, but they are created by conditions that often have little to do with the behaviour of dishonest government officials.

Even when such social ills rise to the top of the national agenda, the fight against corruption tends to inform the public debate. Inevitably, the public’s understanding of what it would take to tackle other national priorities becomes clouded by the corruption obsession.

But, perhaps, the worst collateral damage caused by this fixation is the political instability it can create. Electorates already have many reasons to be disappointed with their elected officials. The corruption curse feeds people’s unrealistic expectations about what it would take to improve their standard of living and set a country on a more prosperous path.

Popular impatience, exacerbated by the belief that nearly all of those at the top are lining their pockets, unreasonably shortens the time governments have to produce results.

Since 1990, many countries have witnessed their heads of state being impeached or forced to resign before the end of their terms. In each case, corruption was a factor.

Although these oustings were often justified, in a number of cases corruption was just an excuse to get rid of a weakened president. The country’s lack of progress was widely interpreted as simply another manifestation of corruption.

It fed the fiction that if voters could simply get rid of the current crop of venal officials and find an honest leader, progress would follow. As a result, many nations have seen weak governments established, in part, because of public disgust with the corruption that preceded them. Yet, many remain high in their rate of corruption perception and are still waiting for their promised progress.

There is no doubt that corruption is a scourge. But, there is also no doubt that many countries crippled by corruption are not sinking.

Others are not only not sinking, they are prospering, despite widespread corruption.

Of course, it would be vastly better if all of these places had an honest and independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law, and a sound educational system. But, these are outcomes not prescriptions. They represent hard-won progress from sustained efforts at all levels of society, typically over generations.

Simply telling these countries to shake off the shackles of corruption, as foreign investors, politicians, leaders of multilateral institutions, and well-known journalists so often do, is worse than no advice at all.

National Economist And Political Analyst

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