The presence of pervasive corruption is one of the dominant explanations for elusive development around the world. Corruption is used to describe a wide variety of human acts—including bribes, favours, thefts and embezzlements.
The nature of the corrupt act varies, and may depend on whether power-holders such as politicians or bureaucrats take the lead and whether societal interest groups are actively a part of a system of patronage and clientelism.
Corruption is often categorised into three main categories: incidental (individual), institutional (an entire office/ministry) and systemic (societal).
Scholars also distinguish between ‘petty corruption’ (meagre monetary gain or an official bending of rules to do a friend a favour); ‘routine corruption’ (including nepotism and the acceptance of bribes or ‘gifts’); and ‘aggravated corruption’ (involving kickbacks from major contracts and organised crime).
In certain cases, corruption is initiated by an office-holder while in other instances, a corrupt act is initiated and encouraged by a favour-seeker. Corruption is sometimes ‘direct’ (immediate gains from bribery, extortion and misuse of official information) while at other times it may be “indirect” (such as promises of employment to friends and family, promotions to prestigious posts, or administrative transfers to “wet-posts” where bribes are easier to solicit).
It would surprise you to read that some argue that corruption can actually have a positive impact on economic development—bribes may bypass inefficient administrative systems that create unnecessary delays.
The general consensus is, however, that corruption has an adverse effect on economic growth, discourages foreign investment and reduces the resources necessary for infrastructure, public services and anti-poverty programmes.
Moreover, pervasive corruption weakens the legitimacy and accountability of governments and thereby undermine political institutions.
The advice of activists, scholars and international agencies to national governments to enact effective legislation and empower institutions to combat corruption has had limited impact.
Many countries would benefit from a more nuanced national conversation on how and why corruption continues to thrive and how certain individuals and groups continue to benefit from corrupt acts either in the role of a giver or a recipient of bribes and favours.
While corruption is a major problem and; hence, the ‘usual suspect’—since it is usually assigned most of the blame for failed development—we ought to also delve deeper into the challenges of implementing public policy to understand why development interventions often do not achieve their desired results.
Although it is usually a factor in some way or other, the corruption approach may not always offer the best explanation as to ‘why things do not work out as they should’.
Thus while fighting corruption should be a major priority, we should not ignore the wider policy environment in which corrupt acts continue to thrive.