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June 4, 2016

The corruption discourse


June 4, 2016

The so-called Panama leaks have brought to the centre stage, yet again, the question of corruption. By default, if not by design, the Panama leaks have devastated an elemental aspect of the global corruption discourse: corruption – even in its most crude and narrowly defined sense – is not a characteristic of the global South. From England to Iceland, rich and powerful white men are equally unscrupulous in the matters of money.

The discourse of anti-corruption began to proliferate worldwide in the mid-1990s. Globally, while initial efforts to stem corruption were visible in the 1970s when the UN adopted a resolution in 1975, international targeting of corrupt practices began to emerge significantly only after the cold war.

In the post-cold war world, as globalisation became a buzzword, highly influential international institutions began to commit themselves to the cause of anti-corruption despite a curious silence previously maintained by the same establishments on the question of corruption. “Silence signified complacency, or at least an unwillingness to confront the issue”, argues researcher Mlada Bukovansky. This complacency or unwillingness, Bukovansky claims, stems from the fact that publicly “calling a person or government corrupt is a political act”.

During the mid-to-late 1990s, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD along with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and western aid agencies – such as UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) – began to champion the cause of anti-corruption. Simultaneously, portals such as CORIS and ANCOR also emerged.

While the DfID built anti-corruption teams, economists associated with the IMF began to write on corruption and helped set a new discourse. When the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, in a much-quoted speech in 1996, claimed that the “cancer of corruption” was holding back development in Africa, the mainstreaming of a new anti-corruption discourse began full throttle.

Again, in a 2004 statement on its website, the World Bank declared: “The Bank has identified corruption as the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development. It undermines development by distorting the rule of law and weakening the institutional foundation on which growth depends.” Colonial history, neo-colonialism, imperialist interventions or the dependency perspective find no place in these deterministic discourses about development in the countries of the global South.

Likewise, also in 2004, the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, claimed that the “evil phenomenon” of corruption “is found in all countries – big and small, rich and poor – but it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive”. Ascribing a radical colour to his narrative, he claimed: “Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice and discouraging foreign aid and investment”.

However, endorsing the view propounded by Wolfensohn, Annan held corruption responsible for the under-development that marks most countries in the South. According to Annan, “Corruption is a key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development”.

Incongruously, during the cold war, liberal development theoreticians were glorifying the role of corruption in stimulating growth in the countries of the global South. For instance, Samuel Huntington – of clash-of-civilisations fame – considered corruption to be not merely an inevitable but a desirable part of modernisation. In the 1960s, he was arguing: “In terms of economic growth, the only thing worse than a society with a rigid, over-centralized, dishonest bureaucracy is one with a rigid, over-centralized, honest bureaucracy”.

Similarly, another influential name Nathaniel Leff claimed, “If the government has erred in its decision, the course made possible by corruption may well be the better one.”

While we may not construe the endorsement of corruption by influential academics such as Huntington as an official policy in imperial countries, it is indicative of mainstream thinking at the time. However, the view that corruption works as ‘grease’ for the development machinery and incentivises new avenues of development in less developed countries has also been countered.

Pakistani economist, Asad Sayeed, points out that capitalist development has traditionally been buttressed by what is termed as “primitive accumulation”. He adds, “…rather than that accumulation creating a virtuous cycle of development, it turns into a permanent grab. For this, states have to draw lines.” However, in countries like Pakistan there is the danger that “the state is too fragmented to draw those lines” while “grease money”, in his view, “is only a small component of this larger process of accumulation”.

In any case, anti-corruption became a global cause only in the post-cold war period. Why? According to Elizabeth Harrison, a scholar on international development, two opposing explanations are possible. On the one hand, there are those who strongly believe that corruption is the root cause of all the problems afflicting the poor countries in the global South. On the other hand, a growing number of scholars see the growth of anti-corruption as part of the project of ‘normalisation’.

However, there are experts flatly rejecting the assertion that corruption is holding Africa back. They view the anti-corruption discourse as an attempt to divert attention from the failure of structural adjustment programmes. Others see it as the manifestation of a neo-liberal policy agenda.

In contrast, Elizabeth Harrison thinks that the answer “lies somewhere in between”. While corruption is a fact, she argues, “its pre-eminence in international discourse is not innocent of neoliberal values”. Like any other discourse, that of anti-corruption has also been developed by particular actors. Therefore, Harrison points out, we need to look at the “anti-corruption establishment”.

In other words, not only do we need to deconstruct the anti-corruption discourse which selectively defines corruption and ignores the structural inequalities, globally as well as locally, we also need to look at the actors peddling the discourse. Globally, the West has been telling the Rest to stay clean. ‘Locally’, the PTI in Pakistan and the AAP in India have emerged as anti-corruption crusaders.

To be continued

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]



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