In a previous post I wrote about the connection between disasters and corruption.
In this post I will focus on solutions.
The detrimental effects of corruption on development (and hence disaster risk) are established. The same regards what constitutes a good, efficient and low-corrupt society. “Accountability”, “transparency” and “rule-of-law” are usually part of that package.
The tricky thing is how to get there. How can the transition take place? From a society permeated by corruption to a, if not perfect, much more well-functioning one?
Too Many Bad Apples
Most anti–corruption programmes fail because they do not address the heart of the matter. The so-called principal- agent approach presupposes a society with a mainly non-corrupt political leadership and judicial system. In other words, where a manageable number of bad apples can be detected and punished. This is also how international organizations handle corruption. Bad guys should be punished, but if you focus only on that, you will not get very far.
The big problem is that in many countries larger parts of the population are prone to be bad apples. To a larger or lesser degree. Corruption is a social norm. Although many realize that these practices are wrong and harmful, they continue because everybody else does, or because they are afraid of losing out.
In Sweden, it was a major crisis, the defeat in the Napoleon wars at the beginning of the 19th century, that sparked the transition. The country’s leading men realized that the defeat was mainly due to corruption. Totally incompetent men had become high-ranking military officers through bribing. Losing a war might not be a good advice for toppling corruption, but knowing that a crisis can open a window of opportunity may be useful.
This acknowledgement among the elite in Sweden did not lead to any immediate action. Simply because they did not know how getting rid of corruption could be possible. This notion evolved gradually. A major factor was the improvements of the national finances. That made it possible for the government to set up pensions schemes for military officers and civil servants. Thereby, the need for bribes became less dominant and excusable. They were able to replace a bribing system, with something better and legal. It took more than 60 years.
Another crucial factor for this translation to take place was the enlightenment and the influence of new ideas, followed by the French and the American revolutions. Ideas like equality, justice and human rights gained momentum. People started to believe that a better society was possible.
Compared to the 1800s, nowadays there are plenty of examples of low-corrupt countries to learn from. Countries, which are well-governed; providing a high standard of living for their citizens. Ditching corruption is no longer a new idea. Hence, the excuses are much more limited.
It may not be appealing for an African country to use New Zealand as a role model, but there is a reason why Botswana comes 35 on Transparency International’s 2016 ranking list, while Angola is 164.
Prerequisites For a Transition
However, the snag is that in Sweden two essential preconditions were in place, before the major crisis in 1809. The country already had a free press and a relatively fair justice system. Contributing to public awareness on the detrimental impact of corruption; and bringing justice through prosecuting some of the worst perpetrators. That is unfortunately not the case in most corruption-ridden countries in today’s world.
However, what did not exist in Sweden in the beginning of the 19th century was a strong civil society, which has a crucial part to play in forming opinions and creating public awareness. Much the same as the press and the media. But with the additional advantage of engaging people directly in their homes and communities. Corruption Watch in South Africa is one good example.
We have to accept that major changes can only come to pass from the inside. And that the transition will take a looong time. Especially in countries still dominated by corrupt elites, unwilling to give up their prerogatives. There are no technical solutions to corruption, only political and social ones.
That does not mean that outside pressure should not continue, just that our efforts should be redirected.
Could it be that supporting a free press, a civil society and an independent court systems would contribute more to fighting corruption than any of the other measures we try, and occasionally succeed with?
That supporting a free press could have lead to more people being safely evacuated during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines? That a free press could prevent further building collapses in Bangladesh? Or mud-slides in Sierra Leone? At least, more than “strategic papers” or workshops at high-priced hotels?
Source: Rothstein and Teorell (2015): “Getting to Sweden, Part II: Breaking with Corruption in the Nineteenth Century.”