On the Pervasiveness of Corruption

December 21st, 2010

Corruption is a criminal behavior. To contain the harm done to society by the corrupt, we rely on oversight and prosecution. We expect integrity from our leaders, and while the ability to stamp out corruption through prosecution is imperfect, it is demonstrable that few are immune from scrutiny. The headline grabbing investigations of figures like Tom DeLay, Charles Rangel, and Steven Ratner are only the most recent examples.

Our response to corruption abroad follows the same reasoning. To foreign leaders we counsel: remove the corrupt from positions of power and prosecute them for their crimes. Yet for every story of a prime minister vowing to crackdown on corruption, we have dozens of stories breaking new scandals. The persistence of corruption baffles us. Fundamentally, our approach to corruption as an individualized problem is failing where corruption is an issue much larger than any individual.

To address corruption where it is most pervasive is to address the alignment of the state’s interest with the public’s interest. Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has explored the notion that in Afghanistan government corruption is not a problem of rouge individuals, but a fundamental characteristic of a government that administers through patronage networks. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, American attention turned away from rebuilding the government of Afghanistan. In the absence of adequate American sustenance, President Karzai cultivated his relationships with regional and ethnic strongmen, his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai among them, to develop his administration’s political base.

Consequently, the government has become de facto a kleptocratic bureaucracy that serves the interests of the patronage networks that support it. An adequate response to corruption in this context is not merely to remove those leaders found to be participating in patronage, but rather to develop strategies that undermine the usefulness of the networks. Halting the flow of money that enters the patronage networks through the layers of private security contractors would be a start.

The anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has studied corruption in Nigeria, a country notorious for the pervasiveness of its corruption, from the email scams authored by students in internet cafés, to the appropriation of state revenues at the highest levels of government. Mr. Smith documents the contrarian nature of the public’s relationship with corruption: pervasive participation coupled with seething condemnation. All too aware of the damage corruption does to their country, many Nigerians consider themselves their own worst enemy as the struggle to survive compels behavior that perpetuates the problem.

While, for example, the necessity of bribing civil servants to receive basic services cripples even day-to-day activities, those servants are nonetheless paid too inadequately and too infrequently not to rent-seek. Though they are outraged by the client-patron relationships and the favoritism of the powerful, most Nigerians expect any relation of their own to leverage their position and influence similarly. Indeed, it is all but a necessity.

When seeking to address corruption internationally we must recognize that it is not enough to warn of its harmful costs; this is news to no one. Where corruption is systemic, the system must be understood.

Written by Jeffrey Lamoureux

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