Anti-corruption Day: A misguided focus

In today’s international development discourse, corruption is often considered as a developing world problem. According to the UN, however, corruption is a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries. On International Anti-Corruption Day, Amelia Worley helps unpack  the phenomenon. 

Corruption undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability”.  Various indices which have been developed allow us to quantitatively measure the presence of corruption, which suggests corruption as a variable stands alone.  High levels of corruption correlates with the prevalence of conflict and poverty, and are generally considered to be endemic in developing countries.

Different arguments stand as to whether corruption breeds poverty and instability, or whether the latter two are conditional for corruption to grow and strengthen.  Does the stark absence of food, supplies and resources force people to turn to a ‘corrupt’ way of living?  Or is corruption supposedly inherent to people living in these areas?

©Mike Blyth/Creative Commons license

©Mike Blyth/Creative Commons license

Poverty can be identified through the very unequal distribution of resources – notably food, water, healthcare and economic wealth.  This is often mirrored by the centralization of power, whereby those in power are not held accountable by the people inhabiting their state.  Unlike the West, those in poverty have no security of income to purchase resources, or know whether said resources will be readily available when they are needed.  It is quite easy to understand why a mind-set of ‘each man for himself’ may perhaps arise when resources, or the power to obtain such resources, do become available.

We see examples of corruption every day in countries considered to be at the highest end of the development spectrum.  Just look at the British government, which scored 78/100 according to Transparency International’s recent corruption perception index to rank 14th in the world for anti-corruption. There is much evidence for the presence of corruption- look at MPs expenses scandals, LIBOR, and, to a more contentious extent, everyday nepotism.

Historically these sorts of things have happened to much worse degrees, with bribes dominating in parliament and cover-ups occurring.  Corruption is rarely discussed as a factor which has affected the UK’s course of economic development.  It can be stated with some confidence therefore, that corruption, or at least corruption alone, is not a prime reason for maldevelopment.

Are we then using this notion of corruption as a form of scapegoat which provides an explanation for the sincerity and frequency of conflict in parts of the world?  Is corruption used as a reason for us to take a backseat and watch what is going on?  Perhaps blaming problems on corruption is our way of portioning blame on societies while avoiding the reality that global policies, from divisive colonial strategies and continuing to this day via aid conditionality to the exploitative focus of profit driven practices of big businesses, have contributed to poverty.

How can we fix this?  If conditions of poverty breed corruption then we should focus on tackling the root causes of such corruption thus allowing countries to prosper.  Therefore, rather than raising awareness of the poisonous ‘corruption’ permeating through developing countries through ‘anti-corruption days’, there should be an encouragement for increased activity to tackle the determinants of poverty; education, effective infrastructure and healthcare.  Stating the presence of corruption arguably only enforces the neo-colonial tendencies of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ within the discourse of development.  Identifying institutions as corrupt stands to differentiate the developed and undeveloped world; in reality, this is anything but true – corruption is undoubtedly present everywhere.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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