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  • Political CorruptionStrategies for Reform
  • Robert Klitgaard (bio)

Corruption is an embarrassing subject. Many citizens in developing countries are simply exhausted by it. They have watched their leaders posture and moralize and make half-hearted efforts against corruption, all to no avail. When Tanzanians debated a campaign against corruption in February 1990, for example, public reactions recorded in the government-run newspaper were overwhelmingly skeptical. "We have the Anti-Corruption Squad under the president's office, the Permanent Commission of Inquiry, the Leadership Code, the Control and Discipline Commission of the Party, and courts of law," noted an intellectual affiliated with the ruling party. "What else do we need?"1 Despite all, corruption still reigned.

At about the same time, a Guatemalan journalist gave voice to another widespread view. "When... the shameless triumph; when the abuser is admired; when principles end and only opportunism prevails; when the insolent rule and the people tolerate it," she lamented, then "perhaps it is time to hide oneself; time to suspend the battle; time to stop being a Quixote."2

Such defeatism and despair are responses to ever deeper corruption in much of the developing world. Robert Wade's remarkable study of corruption in India describes systematic government predation. "The essential business of a state minister," he concludes, "is not to make [End Page 86] policy. It is to modify the application of rules and regulations on a particularistic basis, in return for money and/or loyalty."3 Jean-François Bayart's monumental study of African politics is subtitled la politique du ventre-"the politics of the belly." Corruption, he says, is now the abiding reality of the African state.4 A recent United Nations meeting concluded:

Corruption in government is pervasive at all levels of public management, including, in some countries, the deliberate mismanagement of national economies for personal gain . . . . Corruption is pervasive and is apparently expanding . . . . [I]t has become systematic and a way of life in many countries.5

Around the globe, corruption is increasingly a central issue in election campaigns, popular uprisings, and military coups.

If the current worldwide trend toward democracy and the free market continues, it will eventually help reduce corruption. Competition and accountability-both noteworthy features of democracy and free markets-are the enemies of corruption. Yet while democracy, the separation of powers, a free press, and freer markets are surely to be welcomed, it remains true that actions to control corruption must go beyond broad-gauged reforms at the top. More than one country has discovered that free elections and economic reform do not immediately reduce corruption. Whatever size and type of state a country chooses, the threat of bribery, extortion, influence peddling, kickbacks, fraud, and other illicit activities remains-in the private sector as well as the public.

Even though almost every new Third World government-elected or not-places the fight against corruption at the top of its agenda, the scholarly literature on development offers little guidance. Indeed, a tradition in Western social science has excused corruption as a market-like response when markets malfunction, or as an analogue to democratic logrolling when democracy is absent.

There are exceptions. Some new theoretical work does show how rent seeking and "directly unproductive profit-seeking activities" can cause harm by distorting incentives.6 And new empirical research shows-no surprise to people living in poor countries-that corruption in fact causes harm.7

But many students of development have been reluctant to investigate corruption. Scarce data and uncooperative countries are partly to blame. There is another factor as well: First World scholars do not want to be seen as calling Third World people corrupt. Over 20 years ago, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal decried the Western condescension that led to such a "taboo on research."8 Some social scientists have argued that bribes cannot be distinguished from transactions, that to try to do so is to import Western or one's own [End Page 87] normative assumptions. A bribe, a fee for service, a gift-analytically, it is said, they are the same.

As many poor countries have slid into deeper economic distress, however, the sheer fact that corruption is so widespread...


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