It is widely accepted that corruption is detrimental to the interests of society, particularly the poor. The pervasive view is that corruption impedes social and economic development, eroding the public's trust, hurting investment and undermining democracy and the rule of law. Over the past decades a growing body of work has emerged highlighting the malign impact corruption can have on a society. There is compelling evidence which suggests corruption can fuel poverty by subverting the normal means of distributing economic gains, enriching the grafter while negatively impacting public spending programmes which benefit the poor. On this basis development agencies have placed anti-corruption strategies at the heart of their efforts to strengthen governance.
A renewed focus on challenging corruption and its negative impacts is welcome, but should it have received top billing alongside civil war and property rights when David Cameron announced his vision for the development agenda? One could argue there are a range of other issues which hold more overt linkages to both stalling the development process and fuelling poverty. It has been suggested that corruption has been given a central role because westerners care about corruption far out of proportion to its impacts on poverty alleviation and economic growth.
This is not to say corruption is unimportant. Corruption clearly matters, it can hurt poor people, increase inequality and lower the returns on development investment. However, varying forms of corruption have different effects, some can be very harmful in certain political and social contexts, while other impacts may be relatively benign.
(Red: Low HDI / Orange: Medium HDI / Yellow: High HDI / Green: Very High HDI
The above chart highlights the relationship between the Human Development Index (HDI) and Transparency Internationals Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for Commonwealth countries in 2013. The chart indicates a correlation between low levels of HDI and higher perceived levels of corruption. Conversely those with high levels of HDI are seen to have low levels of corruption. This pattern is indicative of the relationship between corruption and development, there are however a number of points which must be considered.
It is difficult to prove the direct causal impact of corruption levels on economic growth and other development outcomes. Rather than acting as a cause of poverty and slow development, corruption should be seen as a symptom of underlying problems which are often political in nature. Continuing patronage and a lack of checks and balances on politicians and civil servants who without incentive to change their behaviour, continue to act in the interest of themselves and the elites who support them.
Though progress has been made, attempts to tackle corruption have not been entirely successful. Strengthening accountability and the formation of anti-corruption commissions have had limited success. There is still no accepted approach among governments and development agencies for fighting corruption. The rise of civil society groups offer another potential means with which to combat the issue, though these are subject to the political freedoms afforded to such groups in a given nation. Recently in Kampala, Uganda, the Black Monday Movement – a coalition of local NGO's and civil society groups – marched “to mourn the loss of Uganda's public money through corruption”. The catalyst for the coalitions formation was a corruption scandal which rocked the country in 2012. Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi was forced to concede “massive theft” had taken place of $15 million intended for development projects in the conflict affected northern region.
The growing number of civil society organisations willing to stand against corruption in Africa is a positive development. A wave of recent anti-corruption protests have been at the centre of a wider mobilisation of civil society, which has unsurprisingly followed democratisation efforts. Such examples can be seen in Uganda, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia. Many of these groups have reported “judicial harassment” by the authorities. Ultimately, combating corruption in this way requires engagement with governments and the support of watchdogs and justice systems, which can often be lacking.
As the post-2015 development agenda emerges a key focus could aim to tackle the underlying causes of corruption, such as the nature of political systems and the funding of political parties. Anti-corruption efforts could be placed within the wider context of other struggles, such as attempts to reduce constraints to effective service delivery. This would require an evaluation of the complex incentives which shape individual choices of decision makers. Further, the success of anti-corruption strategies will be dependent on the answers to a number of questions. Who are anti-corruption efforts being undertaken by? Is leadership provided from the highest levels of government? Does the state have the capacity to implement a strategy through detection, investigation and ultimately prosecution?
Written by Michael Cavanagh