President Obama’s just completed Africa trip was an interesting spectacle in part because he did something that only an African-American president could pull off — he delivered several tough love lectures, telling his hosts they were making important progress but that they needed to do much better. He repeatedly came back to the subject of corruption as a kind of self-inflicted wound that continues to hold Africa back. Keep in mind that his audiences of government and business elites were full of people who have benefited handsomely from corrupt practices — financial and political. At a culminating event on the trip, the President spoke to the assembled leaders from the 54 countries that comprise the African Union. The presiding chairman was President Mugabe of Zimbabwe — a case study in utter corruption. With Mugabe (who has engineered a series of phony elections) listening, Mr. Obama noted that a number of African leaders had stayed in office in violation of their own national constitutions. And he made it personal. “Africa’s democratic process is . . . at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end. . . . I am in my second term. . . I love my work. But under our Constitution, I cannot run again. . . . No person is above the law. Not even the president.”
The burden that economic and political corruption imposes on Africa is huge and undeniable, but it is certainly not limited to Africa. Transparency International (TI) ranks over 170 countries on a scale of best to worst when it comes to corruption, and many of the worst performers are found in Latin America and Central Asia. Major countries, including China, India, Brazil, Turkey and Italy, are permeated with this societal cancer. The pervasiveness of the problem is no surprise; it reflects fundamental vulnerabilities in human character and society.
The conditions that breed corruption in places such as Zimbabwe or the Philippines are no mystery. Poverty and scarcity are a big part of it. Political power creates opportunity to satisfy the hunger for wealth. In poor countries around the world, those fortunate enough to gain power are often expected not only to enrich themselves but also an extended group of family, political supporters, kin and tribe and so on. Many inhabitants of President Obama’s ancestral village in Kenya expected a windfall of benefits from his election simply as a matter of course. In other cases power is less political and more directly criminal, as with the mafia and other criminal networks. But these networks must corrupt political power for protection and the opportunities for income it provides. Recent news stories have highlighted the chronic breakdown in public services in Rome due to the pervasive penetration of civic politics by the mafia. The relationship between a godfather and a mafia soldier is the same as that between a Philippines mayor and his loyal thugs.
Windfall sources of wealth — think oil and narcotics — are a powerful accelerant of corruption. Autocracy also is a potent enabler. As Lord Acton famously observed, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Think Robert Mugabe and Vladimir Putin. In the Philippines, rampant corruption has been curbed thanks to a political reaction through the ballot box. The Philippines is a real (if flawed) democracy, and in the last election a reformer and a genuinely honest man was elected president. China is an interesting comparative case. President Xi Zinping has made an anti-corruption campaign a centerpiece of his tenure — and has sown widespread fear throughout the Communist Party apparatus in the process. The broader public loves it. There is, however, a problem. China is an autocracy, and in such a system there is not independent (judicial) or political (democracy) basis for attacking corruption systemically among the most powerful. In Xi’s case, it all comes down to whom he decides to target — and increasingly it looks like his targets are political rivals rather than corruption per se.
Corruption is enduring and endemic, but it is not immutable. A look at TI’s rankings is revealing.
At the top (the least corrupt), we find the Nordic countries and the northern Europeans (Denmark is number one) plus Canada, Australia and Singapore. One of the subtexts of the recent drama over a Greek bailout by the EU was the disgust of the northern Europeans with what they saw as hopelessly high levels of corruption in Greece. A critical question for the future of Greece (and the EU) is whether Athens, like a (presumably) reformed alcoholic, can actually mend its ways.
So where does this leave the seemingly eternal fight against corruption? Part of the answer is cultural. The clash between Germany and Greece in the bailout negotiations was between two very different social codes. The Germans believe in rules, and rules are to be obeyed. Rules, strictly enforced and social supported, leave no room for pervasive corruption. But culture is not enough. China is heir to a great and ancient culture, but corruption may be the ultimate undoing of the People’s Republic. Here the case of Singapore, an ethnic Chinese city state, is interesting. The founding president of the republic imposed by sheer force of will a kind of Asian Calvinism because he saw corruption as the acid that would destroy his new country. But he also adopted some very practical measures, including a pay scale for civil servants and government officials that was high enough to remove any excuse for corrupt activities.
As long as people are vulnerable to temptation, corruption will be a fact of life. But Denmark and Singapore demonstrate that it need not be a dominant fact.