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Time for a grown-up conversation about corruption

09 December 2014

Image: An anti-corruption poster from Guadalajara, Mexico (Photo: Kate McCarthy).

Corruption is the problem in development everyone loves to hate. Every conceivable dysfunction of political systems across the developing world is pegged on corruption. No matter what the challenge, the answer often trotted out is “if only these countries were less corrupt” (with a rolling of the eyes for added effect).

But not liking corruption does not mean that we understand it better or that we know how to combat it effectively.

So on International Anti-Corruption Day, let’s move beyond simplistic messages and have a grown-up conversation about corruption and internationally supported efforts to tackle it. Here are a few points to kick off the discussion.

Corruption is a complex phenomenon that is rooted in a wide variety of economic, political, administrative, social and cultural factors. It is a symptom of broader dynamics, interactions, weaknesses and potential opportunities, rather than an innate pathology. This is what makes it so entrenched and so difficult to address.

Not all forms of corruption are equally corrosive to developmental efforts, and corruption in itself does not pose an insurmountable obstacle to development. As many analysts have argued, wealthy countries may on average be less corrupt, but that does not mean that they were less corrupt to start with.

A variety of countries have been able to sustain prolonged periods of economic growth and make progress in the fight against poverty despite high levels of corruption (think of Botswana, Brazil, China, Rwanda and Vietnam). What has mattered is not whether there is corruption, or, more precisely, corrupt rent-seeking (as there most likely will be), but how such rents have been managed and distributed. So-called ‘developmental patrimonial states‘ that have effective systems to centralise the management of rents have been successful in orienting them towards long-term growth, with contemporary Rwanda as an example. In some cases, the strategic allocation of the benefits derived through corruption has also played a crucial role in helping to limit violence and promote stability in countries overcoming conflict.

Of course, the fact that corruption does not automatically undermine development or fuel violent conflict does not make it any less unsavoury or burdensome. Research consistently finds that corruption deepens inequality and skews the distribution of public services, which affects the most vulnerable groups, including women and the poor, disproportionately

So what does all this suggest for the fight against corruption? We need to develop a more nuanced approach that goes beyond overly simplified narratives about the causes and effects of corruption and idealised models about how to combat it – and this leads to our next discussion point.

Democracy does not solve corruption in and of itself. Since the 1990s, the developing world has experienced a growing tide of democratisation. These transitions generated heightened expectations among donors that democratic reforms would improve governance and reduce corruption. Yet with democratisation, corruption has either increased or become more visible.

People holding candles

A vigil for the 43 students missing from Mexico’s Guerrero state (Photo: Brooke Binkowski).

This is particularly evident in electoral politics, where campaign corruption scandals are uncovered regularly. In some settings organised crime has thoroughly infiltrated political systems (witness what is happening across Latin America, and perhaps most tragically in Mexico).

This suggests an urgent need for campaign financing reform, a better understanding of the influence of dirty money in political processes – and greater caution in approaching corruption in democratising contexts.

Women are not necessarily less corrupt than men. An influential 1999 World Bank study concluded that a higher percentage of women in government is associated with lower levels of corruption. However, subsequent evidence remains inconclusive. In situations of risk (including, for instance, the risk of stigmatisation or vulnerability to punishment based on gender discrimination), women are less prone to accept bribes than men, which suggests that women may be more risk-averse rather than less inherently corrupt. Indeed, other research shows that women are as likely as men to engage in corruption once they gain increased exposure and access to the political system.

Knowledge of contextual dynamics and social taboos are essential for an understanding of the propensity towards corruption among men and women – and it should not be assumed that incorporating a greater number of women in politics will be a magic bullet against corruption.

Various attempts to combat corruption across the developing world have fallen considerably short of expectations, often because they have been based on unrealistic (and often technical) blueprints of change and have not sufficiently questioned the assumptions underlying them. Anti-corruption measures need to be more strategic and tailored to specific contexts to be more effective, and they work better when they integrated into wider efforts to promote institutional reform.

Undoubtedly, donors are increasingly aware that they need to develop a deeper understanding of the domestic context and the factors driving corruption, especially in terms of political processes and the frameworks of incentives within which different actors operate. But the key challenge remains how to apply the lessons learned from ever more sophisticated forms of political economy analysis. The default position is still towards technical approaches that shy away from the deeper political realities, power dynamics and social structures that perpetuate corruption.

There are some notable exceptions. The DfID-supported State Accountability and Voice Initiative that works with members of Nigeria’s state houses of assembly on transparency and accountability is a compelling example of politically aware support for nationally-led reform initiatives.

Yet research has shown consistently that the more common ‘kneejerk window-dressing projects‘ such as anti-corruption agencies do not work because they tend to favour form over function and are not tailored to country realities.

Corruption is a serious problem – but the answers are not straightforward. If international anti-corruption efforts are to be effective, we need to move beyond black and white platitudes. Dogmatic approaches that fail to understand that change is messy and that neglect underlying structures and dynamics may in the end cause more harm than good. It’s time to grow up.

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