Puzzling over ‘anti-corruption’

anti-CorruptionI’ve been puzzling (yet again!) over the usefulness of anti-corruption as an entry point for engagement by civil society, donors and other developmental champions. Always and everywhere, behaving ethically is surely crucial to meet the most important test of all — the “look oneself in the mirror every morning” test. The question for activists is not whether we should model ethical behavior — an obvious “yes” —  but what are the pros and cons of an anti-corruption ‘framing’.  I list below three analytically strong arguments against using anti-corruption as an entry point– but also one compelling argument for its use. It would be terrific if this post could get some fresh new conversation underway on the dilemma.

 Here (to establish that I’m not coming at this as an apologist) is the argument ‘for’ focusing on anti-corruption. Impunity is corrosive. It can over time destroy a country’s entire development platform. In the absence of sustained vigilance, some political leaders might find themselves wading, step by incremental step, deeper and deeper into the mire of corruption – setting a tone at the top which progressively pervades layer after layer of a country’s institutions. The absence of a strong anti-corruption voice in society can help ‘enable’ this type of downward slide.

But here are the three arguments against leading with an ‘anti-corruption’ focus:

  • First is the logic of ‘limited access orders’ — as laid out in landmark work by Nobel-prize winning economist Douglass North and his co-authors. They show compellingly that in the large majority of countries today (and historically everywhere), before impersonal institutions have taken root, personalized deal-making among elites is the basis for political stability. They argue also that the development of a country’s institutions and its economy are interdependent, and that the process evolves incrementally. Taken together, as they argue, these insights suggest that “transplanting institutions [can] undermine the political arrangements maintaining stability, [and can] unleash disorder, making the society significantly worse off.”
  • Second is the logic of clientelism – spelled out in useful detail by Francis Fukuyama in his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay. Fukuyama argues that the allocation of public sector jobs to political allies will almost inevitably be present in societies that democratize before they build strong state capability. He suggests that in settings with democratic contestation but without a capable state  “clientelism should be considered an early form of democratic accountability and be distinguished from other forms of corruption – or indeed not considered a form of corruption at all.”
  • Third is the central importance of the ‘capacity to co-operate’ in achieving development outcomes – and, as per the path-breaking work of Elinor Ostrom (another Nobel-prize winner), the role of encouraging trust  and  mutual learning in building this capacity. In a world where (as she puts it) “there are some saints and some sinners, but mostly regular folk capable of both types of behavior….norms can evolve to support co-operation.” As Ostrom’s good practice principles for effective co-operation suggest, co-operation and trust are built by a combination of close monitoring and encouraging people to put their ‘best foot’ forward, even in the face of imperfection, not by punitive admonition. [Chapter 8 of my book, Working with the Grain  includes a comprehensive discussion of how we can bring Ostrom’s insights more into the mainstream of the development policy and implementation discourse; more information about the book is available on this website.]

A few years ago, I began asking colleagues within the development community how one might tell the difference between those political and bureaucratic leaders who were doing what was necessary to achieve developmental goals in settings where formal institutions were weak – and those who had crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of impunity and predation. It took many months before I finally came across a colleague who (based on his many years of experience in an African country which had experienced both types of leadership) provided a compelling answer.  “It’s easy”, he said. “In the former case, the informal rules of the game are clear, and the leaders play by them. In the latter, the rules are not clear – and, whatever, they might be, they do not apply to the leaders themselves”.

Compelling, yes – but how can activists translate the above into a strategy which provides a ‘tripwire’ in the face of impunity but, at the same time, sustains a positive discourse for the development endeavor as a whole? Reflections appreciated – and more on this in subsequent posts….

8 responses

  1. Brian – key issue. The ‘stage of institutional development’ arguments put forward by North, Fukuyama etc are compelling. However, they only look at one side of the story. On the other side is the role of foreign aid itself. If weak institutional development (e.g. weak regulatory compliance) is confronted by large flows of subsidized money and resources (exceeding 10% of GDP in many African countries), through channels that are bureaucratic, poorly monitored, with conflicting motivations and confused objectives (such that there is little or no local buy-in), and if the money is then misappropriated, then the question arises as to where exactly responsibility lies? Within the US itself examples of misappropriation of grants are commonplace and the most egregious example of all – the enormous waste of US aid in Iraq – took place under the noses of a military occupier who imposed regulatory compliance. My point is that foreign aid itself may undermine the very institutional development (regulatory compliance) that it purports to support. Where then is the ‘entry point’ for anti-corruption efforts? The answer is that regulatory compliance has to emanate from within a society. All that can be done from outside is to provide marginal technical help when asked (e.g. drafting laws and setting up systems). The entry point for anti-corruption efforts by outsiders is thus extremely restricted and a full frontal approach, even if it avoids the charge of arrogance, will be counterproductive. (Please read my blog developmentwithoutaid.com.)

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