books human rights social justice

Corruption: the world’s big C, by Ian Senior

If you spend any time talking about development, no doubt you will have been reminded plenty of times that poor countries are corrupt and/or overpopulated, and we should stop wasting our time and money on them. I’m confident development can proceed despite these things, but I don’t want to be naive either, and I’ve done a bit of reading around both issues in recent weeks.

Corruption, the world’s big C – Cases, Causes, Consequences, Cures is a monograph from the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which Ian Senior describes corruption as operating like a cancer on society, hence the ‘big C’ of the title. Corruption undermines democracy, distorts markets, increases risk in commercial dealings, scares investors, destroys levels of trust in society, and effects an upward redistribution of wealth from poor to rich. Like cancer, it moves from organ to organ, eventually affecting every institution of government.

Corruption leaches wealth towards those with any kind of power, such as customs officials or police officers. In that sense it operates like a covert tax, and it is quite quantifiable. Research in Kenya showed that the average urban Kenyan paid 18 bribes a month, at a cost of £93. Since the average monthly salary is £295, that’s equivalent to a 31% tax on the ordinary citizen. No wonder Senior describes it as a cancer – imagine if you lost a third of your earnings, every week of the year. Wouldn’t you take any opportunity you got to ask a bribe in return, just to cover your losses? It’s easy to see how corruption becomes endemic, something that is unavoidable. And of course, once everybody is implicated, it’s hardly even considered wrong any more. It just is.

So how do you deal with it? One thing is to talk about it more, especially in schools and with young people. The idea that corruption is a form of stealing and is morally wrong has been undermined in countries where it is endemic. Education presents an opportunity to restore social morality. Politicians have unique power to stop corruption too, although Senior points out that since many politicians have relied on corruption to get them where they are, and there is no incentive to fix anything. Consequently, many corruption drives come through the opposition parties, and promises to clean things up are often part of election campaigns. Even the UK’s Labour party victory in 1997 played on ‘tory sleaze’.

Forces outside the country can also have a positive influence. If aid or debt relief were contingent on good governance, corrupt governments would lose a crucial source of income. It would also stop aid being misappropriated, so it’s a double win. Instead aid has flowed to corrupt leaders and their Swiss bank accounts for decades, and that has become a stick to beat the whole aid movement with. Transparency indexes and support for whistle blowers would help here, and bribes need to be cut off at source. As I’ve written about before, every bribe has two sides, and richer countries often blame the poorer ones while allowing their businessmen to buy all kinds of access. It took 12 years to get a prosecution out of Britain’s overseas bribery laws, after all. Let’s hope it’s not too long until the next one.

Senior also suggests international league tables, as a way of naming and shaming corrupt countries. A large part of the book is given over to case studies and the awarding of bronze, silver and gold medals, depending on how high up the people involved are. Senior concludes with recommending a zero tolerance approach. He singles out the idea of immunity as particularly corrosive – French presidents, for example, cannot be prosecuted. Jacques Chirac, and Mitterand before him, are proven to have taken full advantage of this. Silvio Berlusconi had three convictions and another six prosecutions for bribery on the go in 1991, which doesn’t seem to have held him back. As Senior says, this makes people cynical: “if the politicians can do it, why shouldn’t we?”

Having lived with it and seen how frustrating, dis-heartening and fundamentally dis-empowering it can be, I find corruption an interesting topic and it’s something we’ll continue to monitor and campaign on. Since I’m interested, I enjoyed Corruption – The World’s Big C, but others may find it a little technical and overly focused on its own solutions, such as the medals table. That’s what you get for reading monographs though, so that’s not the author’s fault. If you know a good book on corruption, tell me about it and I’ll read and review it in due course.

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  1. Not directly relevant, but are you familiar with Hernando de Soto’s work? I think you’ll be interested in it (I reviewed him here: )

    I’m trying to find a reference to research I read about some years ago that was talking about the difference between Northern and Southern Italy, linking it to corruption in the medieval era, and demonstrating the link to present day prosperity. The best I can find is a Robert Putnam document but it doesn’t quote the source. I’ll keep looking.

    1. Not yet – de Soto is on my reading list. He’s one of those people who is referenced so often I’m going to need to read his stuff for myself at some point, but that’s a useful review in the meantime. I’ve got David landes’ book on the shelf too. Should get round to it sometime in the next few weeks.

      And I’m afraid I can’t help you on the Italian thing…

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