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A few days ago I was invited to answer a question on Quora; “What can be done to reduce corruption in areas where it’s a significant cause of severe poverty and health problems?” This got me thinking on the topic a bit more actively. This post is about those ruminations.  

A common factor in all analyses about causes of poverty in the developing world is corruption, systemic corruption.  In my view there are five, often interconnected, factors that lead to widespread corruption.

  1. When the economy, or at least a part of the economy, starts growing rapidly: this  opens out opportunities, often to a select few, to take advantage of the growth to make profits for themselves. Scandals in the telecom industry in India are a classic case of this happening.
  2. When economic space is limited or restricted: When that happens, the only way to make money is the political space and chance of self- aggrandizement that power offers. You can see this happening in a lot of the underdeveloped countries in Africa. Since the economy is not robust, the country gets lot of access to international aid which can be siphoned off by the politically powerful.
  3. Where a country / region has resources that are desired by the rest of the world: once again control over these resources are way to making money for one self. This can be observed in almost any country that has abundance of minerals (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana) or oil (Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea) resources. Many a time the scramble for power in these countries is accompanied by prolonged conflict. None of the parties involved in the scramble are keen on alleviating poverty. They just look for control over resources. Often foreign players enter the scene and promote their ‘favourite’ players as ways of controlling resources in the future. This too increases corruption.
  4. Where civil society is weak:  This invariably accompanies restrictions on media. A weak civil society and weak media means reduced pressures on governments to be accountable and transparent. With opacity of governments comes a system of patronage and empire building leading automatically to corruption. A strong civil society and media in themselves cannot stop corruption but can create adequate awareness and pressure for the perpetrators to not act with impunity.
  5. When there is a lack of mechanisms to deal with corruption: By mechanisms I mean institutionalised legal frameworks to punish the corrupt. There is no point in establishing Anti Corruption Commissions or appointing Ombudsmen, as is being promoted in India, to address corruption issues if the citizens can see the powerful acting with impunity.

The anti-corruption measures that suggest themselves are, in my view, as under.

1. Strategic leveraging of resources to engender more equitable growth: when a wider cross section of people get personal growth opportunities, systemic corruption reduces.

You can see this in Botswana. Practically no one would have given this landlocked country in Africa any chance of climbing out of poverty at the time of independence in 1966. However, since that time, the Botswana economy has been steadily growing. It started off as one of the poorest countries in the world but is now a middle income country with a per capita GDP equal to Mexico or Turkey. Botswana, contrary to most other African countries, has managed to use its mineral resources well and has backed them with strong governance systems.

2. Promoting strong civil society & freedom for media:

3. Strengthening accountability and governance systems.

Both factors go hand in hand. No authoritarian government is going to be keen to allow this. However, unchecked systemic corruption and poverty go hand in hand. Most of the countries that suffer from corruption are also recipients of international aid. This means foreign donors have a power over these counties. They need to be able to leverage their ‘power over’ these countries and push for reform. This is something that international agencies / donors need to push for. Sadly this has not happened to the extent required. Realpolitik has traditionally triumphed over reform. However, there is now a growing realisation that without improved governance, aid is going to be of no use. The pressure on authoritarian and corrupt governments to open up and reform is increasing

4. Rule of law

At the end of the day, nothing can improve lives of the poor and powerless as establishment of rule of law. Mechanisms to punish the corrupt not only need to be in place but also be implemented.

These measures may seem too idealistic and fanciful. Perhaps there is a valid cause for this feeling. Frankly, though there are no easy solutions in any case. Even armed revolutions have not helped. For instance, almost all coups in Africa have had the ostensible reason of replacing a  corrupt government with one that is more ‘democratic and equitable’.  Nowhere has this actually happened. Only the faces and names of the corrupt changed, matters remained as they were, if not actually worsened.

None of these measures I am suggesting are easy. None are definitely going to show results in double-quick time. The issue of corruption is often very deep rooted and assumes cultural dimensions. Making a dent in corruption requires behavioural change in a wide range of stakeholders. That is never easy. Further there is no guarantee of success.

Should they be tried though? Unequivocally yes.