Saturday, March 05, 2005

Corruption: When is a problem not a problem?

Update: I'm reposting this for a later date, because I think it may have gotten buried in yesterday's posts. Upon further reflection, I also wonder whether the Foreign Policy editor's perspective on this is tainted by his Venezuelan background. I mean who among us mourns the resignation of any of these Latin American leaders accused of corruption? The most problematic place is Venezuela, where the corrupt establishment was replaced by Hugo Chávez, with whom we know Moisés Naím is not happy.

Moíses Naím has a short, provocative piece in the current issue of Foreign Policy on how the "the war on corruption is undermining democracy, helping the wrong leaders get elected, and distracting societies from facing urgent problems." The problem is especially acute in Latin America, where Naím argues this fixation on corruption is politically destabilizing.
Popular impatience, exacerbated by the belief that nearly everyone at the top is lining their pockets, unreasonably shortens the time governments have to produce results. Since 1990, 11 Latin American heads of state were impeached or forced to resign before the end of their terms. In each case, corruption was a factor.
Naím urges the following:
Simply telling these countries to shake off the shackles of corruption—as foreign investors, politicians, leaders of multilateral institutions, and well-known journalists so often do—is worse than no advice at all. We should be encouraged by the fact that so many forces are aligned together in the fight against corruption. But before we engage the enemy, we should take the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, and promise to first do no harm.
But is the so-called "war on corruption," the one that Naím says is sweeping the world and unintentionally undermining demcracies everywhere, really a problem?

In such cases, I turn to a good friend of mine who's quite the expert on anti-corruption, having experience with several international institutions and worked on several continents. This was the response I got (emphasis mine):
Like a child having a tantrum, knowing the issue won't go away but wishing it would anyway. Let me see if I follow:

1. Corruption is a terrible scourge and I'm terribly against it (but not really, come on, China is doing GREAT! Just focus on other problems and, well, just do no harm and, while you're at it, stop talking so much about corruption -- but, by the way, no one will pay more taxes or get better services until you do something about it but, never mind about that, move on to greener pastures!)

2. There is this global tsunami of powerful actors and these "powerful" anti-corruption czars everywhere! (The reality is that this "grand coalition" he builds up actually consists of some window-dressing/ toothless/ underresourced czars, 1-2 NGOs and a ton of very angry voters with a few bad choices come election day.)

3. OK, corruption really does exist and there really has been a corruption explosion and it affects all these other problems that matter but all voters in developing countries are the REAL problem -- your "obsession" with this issue is mucking things up. (I guess his basic point here is that they are, well, right but, um, wrong and should acquire more convenient, less mettlesome opinions about some problems that we actually know how to solve.)
So much cognitive dissonance here I don't even know where to start.
Perhaps Naím needs to get out of Washington a bit more often.

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