What we talk about when we talk about corruption

I agree with Bill Gates: corruption is a second order development issue at best. A commenter pushes back:

I think both Gates and Blattman are being a bit blithe on the issue of corruption–or at least constraining the issue to an unhelpfully narrow conception of corruption. I agree that the problem of graft or illegally channeling public funds into private bank accounts is a pretty minor problem in the overall scheme of things.

But if we think of corruption in the broader sense of subverting democracy and making holders of public office accountable to people other than the public they purport to represent, I think that not only is corruption a serious problem, but that aid bears a large part of the blame.

A number people have asked me this so I’ll clear up my view.

I agree that subverting democracy and institutions, or wholesale pillaging of the nation (a la Mobutu), is a big problem. It is one facet of the governance problems that are fundamentally the cause of poverty and instability–personalized, authoritarian, unaccountable rule. Which also usually happens to be corrupt.

If that’s what World Bank president Jim Kim or others mean by ‘corruption’ then I’m all for tackling it. But that’s not what the word means, what many people understand it to mean, or what the policy solutions seem to tackle.

Merriam-Webster defines corruption as “dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people (such as government officials or police officers)”. This (in my view) conjures bribery and fraud more than an overcentralized, autocratic kleptocracy. I’m guessing this is what it means to the average voter, aid worker, or unfortunate citizen of one of these regimes.

A focus on bribery and diversion of aid money is precisely what a lot of aid agencies and donors worry about, because the people that give them money hate that theft, petty or large-scale.

Their answers and policy solutions are revealing. Anti-corruption commissions for example. That is not a solution to the fundamental problem. Most anti-corruption policies obscure the real challenges. Band-aids for cancer patients.

In fact, aid donors themselves have fed the problem, giving absolute sovereignty to the head of state, channeling funds through central government, making a handful of ministries powerful gatekeepers, and sending good money after bad.