Reflections on “corruption”…

I have long argued that people tend to use the word “corruption” mainly to describe cultural practices that differ from those with which they are familiar.  It is a term that is almost always used negatively. Re-reading Transparency International‘s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index has very much reinforced this view, but in a way that I suspect will not be expected by those who read what follows!

Corruption TI

I have huge admiration and respect for the work of Transparency International. The map above shows the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 177 countries in the world.  In brief, it indicates that 69% of countries have a score of less than 50%, indicating a serious corruption problem.

However, what stands out most to me about this map is that it is very largely the countries of northern Europe, northern America, and Australasia that are perceived as being least corrupt.  The yellow “holiness” is so marked against the “evil” red of corruption that swathes most of the rest of the world!

Corruption according to Transparency International can be defined  “Generally speaking as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Corruption can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs”.

Three ideas seem particularly pertinent in this context:

  1. The notion of corruption is intimately tied up with the nature of capitalism.  Put simply, the apparently least corrupt countries according to this definition are generally the most advanced capitalist countries.  This suggests that it serves capitalist interests to try to reduce “corruption” as much as possible. It is interesting to ponder why this might be.  One reason may be that reducing the abuse of entrusted power for private gain actually reduces the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.  However, it is difficult to see how this might happen, and it seems in stark contrast to a fundamental characteristic of capitalism which is that it is actually designed to ensure the maximum possible private gain for the capitalists.  I guess the reality may be that limiting or preventing private gain from entrusted power actually enables the market (i.e. the principles of capitalism) to flourish as effectively as possible.  By extension a reduction of all entrusted power (i.e. limiting the power of the state) could be seen to enhance the power of the market, and therefore increase the potential for private gain of those who do not hold political power.  Hence, keeping the power of the state as small as possible, and ensuring that it functions in a way that does not lead to private gain for the holders of power in the state, will ensure that the maximum surplus profit is available to the leaders of global corporations and their shareholders.
  2. However, it is very clear that there is also corruption in the leading capitalist states.  The countries shaded yellow on the above map may be perceived as being less corrupt than others, but corruption still abounds in them!  Hence, there is huge hypocrisy when leaders (and indeed others) in the “yellow” countries accuse those in the “red” countries of being corrupt.  Those in the banking sector, for example, who pay themselves and their staff huge salaries are surely also using their positions of power for private gain?  The amount of money spent in US Presidential elections is also an indication of the way in which “money speaks”: Obama thus raised $715,677,692 in the 2012 elections, and Romney raised $446,135,997.  Together, this sum of money was worth more than the GDP of 25 countries in 2012 (according to UN figures).  One needs huge amounts of money to be elected President of the US, and those who contribute this money expect the policies that the President introduces to benefit them – for private gain.  Likewise, in the UK in 2012, Michael Meacher in a letter to the Guardian newspaper noted that “that the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare”.  Is not this also a form of corruption?
  3. Corruption is seen differently in countries where rampant capitalism and private financial gain may not be seen as the most important priorities.  According to the Transparency International report, most countries in the world are perceived as having a serious corruption problem.  This poses an interesting question: might their systems of priorities actually in some ways be better?  If they were not, why do these systems persist?  For a person living in a culture where ties to family and tribe are more important than individual private financial gain, it must seem very wrong not to give employment opportunities to members of one’s family, regardless of actual ability. Likewise, where personal loyalty matters more than direct monetary return, supporting a friend to achieve their particular job aspirations would seem much more appropriate than ensuring that there is a “fair” competence based application process.  Giving gifts to reciprocate for generous hospitality is merely a different way of redistributing and sharing financial benefits.  Moreover, much of what passes for probity in the “yellow” countries actually tends to be a smokescreen for traditional modes of “corruption”.  The appointments process is invariably biased through friendship ties – not least through the reference system and the use of headhunters – and is never purely competence based.  Likewise, the UK’s honours system is still very largely determined by personal friendship networks, rather than necessarily by ability or contribution to the common good.

In short, I am more than ever convinced that “corruption” is simply a pejorative term that people use to describe political, social and economic systems that are  different from their own.  In a world dominated by capitalist interests, it is scarcely surprising that less-advanced capitalist economies are perceived as being more corrupt than those where the search for individual gain and success is highest.  Yet this very focus on individual gain in capitalist societies is itself fundamentally “corrupt”, since it detracts from the communal good which, at least for me, is ultimately far more valuable.  I suggest that we may have much more to learn from the mutually supportive social and cultural networks that underlie such “corrupt” regimes, than we do from the economic interests that determine definitions of probity in the capitalist heartland. However, this is because I believe that the common good is far more important than private individual gain.



Filed under Africa, Commonwealth, Development, Entrepreneurship, Universities

5 responses to “Reflections on “corruption”…

  1. Tim,
    Clear arguments, well expressed. I think there’s a clear problem with trying to find a definition of corruption that is culturally neutral and this gives real interpretation problems.
    looking at UK and France in my experience there is a clear distinction.
    On balance my experience is that the French political system favours decision and action over process, so will ride rough over opposition. In UK, the appearance of being squeaky clean means indecision and delay. Housing Planning and HS2 are good examples along with energy infrastructure. I’ve sometimes suggested that if peter Mandelson had been a French politician, he might have been better liked in UK.
    Similarly paying consultants or brokers varies between countries and cultures. It’s interesting that paying a broker in the Middle East by a western company can be interpreted as either normal business practise or corruption. It only tends to be thought of as corrupt when 1. they don’t buy or 2. They buy from the wrong guy.

  2. Ali

    Thank you Tim. It is a very informative and analytical note on corruption. I think the source of state income also important. For instance, in rentier countries sates (oil exporting countries) do not even rely on the social classes. They are not accountable to their people, even business leaders simply because almost all sources of revenue are not only tax but oil revenues.

  3. Godfred Bonnah Nkansah

    Very thought provoking. I enjoyed reading this article, Prof.

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