Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Corruption... a personal perspective

Recently, a friend who got back on a business trip from a developing country, stumped and frustrated by the loops of bureaucracy to be leapt through (and expectant palms to be greased in every turn) relayed this story about the local policemen. Apparently, once a month, the local chief convenes his subordinates for a meeting. Without a word, he passes each of them an envelope. In it is a small but significant stash of dollar notes.
In a word, corruption.

But it gets more complicated from here – Imagine yourself as a district policeman in the developing world - would you decline the envelope, and fall out of favour with the chief and risk your family’s livelihood? Chances are, the chief is just going to replace you with a more compliant underling. Make a report? Chances are, it won’t get past the chief’s chief, or even his chief for that matter.

Or would you say nothing, but pocket it anyway, just because – everyone else, even the chief, is doing it? And there is simply no better alternative?

Now we see corruption in a slightly more different light. It is at once a very major and obvious problem, crippling entire economies from their full potential, and a very minor one, stretching its tendrils all the way into our very personal lives. It is this perspective that allows us to glimpse its sheer breadth, the scale and depth of the problem – that corruption has almost become a culture, an institution and an inescapable fact of life.

Corruption seen this intimately and honestly is a serious scourge to countries, especially developing ones. Once there is an entrenched culture of corruption, once it gets passed down from the upper echelons, to buy favour and secure complicity, or even when there is a lack of will to tackle corruption (usually because the upper echelons themselves are complicit), you start to have a serious institutional rot, an institutional problem that will not be removed with one or two token arrests to placate the masses. And once our public institutions, first and foremost those under the executive and the judiciary, cannot be trusted anymore and become dysfunctional organisations serving the whims of those in power and wealth, civil society suffers. The foundations and safeguards of a healthy democracy will be greatly undermined. The rule of man, not the rule of law, will prevail. And far too often we have found that the rule of man is but a step from the rule of the jungle.

If you ever find yourself in a teahouse or coffeeshop in the developing world, and caught up in political chatter, chances are it is on the supposed corruption of the political elite, in its various guises – cronyism, nepotism, favouritism, graft...  Beyond what hardened cynics may scorn as liberal idealism, all this no doubt have a very real and dire effect as well on the national economy and its competitiveness, besides deterring investment and business activity as my friend’s plight amply demonstrates.

Public outrage at corruption as the root of the national rot is common, and last year, the year of the Protestor as TIME magazine dubbed it, we have indeed seen plenty of it. Surely, this must be the key reason why some countries are held back when others with significantly less resources and less favourable conditions have succeeded? Surely, this must be why the sheer volume of aid pouring into Africa has not been effective at all, or why a wealth in natural resources have still left most countries poor, but with stark income disparities?

Corruption is a bottomless pit – a veritable Faustian pact – once you’re in, there is no backing out anymore. Institutionalised corruption simply chases ever greater wealth, ever greater security of power, for further gain and avoidance of prosecution – the unholy alliance between wealth and power, between public institutions and ruling political parties, the enmeshing of interests, become almost inevitable and similarly impossible to unravel.

Once a significant majority across the branches of government is complicit and benefits from ill-gotten gains, institutionalized corruption becomes almost impossible to eradicate. Imagine pestilent weeds – if you just shear off the part you see, it grows back again in no time. The solution is literally to tackle it at its roots – you take a shovel and claw it out.

I will stick my head out on the guillotine and say it: If there is institutionalised corruption in a country, it starts right at the top.

Clawing out pestilent weeds, as anyone who has done it before knows, is an arduous and painstaking task - entrenched political parties, with their amply funded war-chest and complicit and compliant public institutions at their disposal, merely sweep into power each and every election as a formality. And that is if there are even elections.

We need an extra strong weed-killer sometimes, because, as we are all too clear, the real cost of corruption is on democracy, individual rights as equal citizens before the law, a functioning and competitive economy, and a better quality of life.