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Monica Prasad and Her Team on Why Corruption Persists


Some Americans can be incredibly naïve about corruption. I have read a lot of student papers about corruption. I have read a lot of student papers about underdevelopment – which often as not is ascribed to corruption. The “A” students, those students that have had a chance to travel or those students who have friends from poorer countries are more likely to have a pretty good idea about what is going on. Students with less global experience or who have given these questions less thought can shock the reader with their simplistic world views. There are a lot of people in this second category.

I don’t think the negative stereotypes that are expressed by those students are limited to that population alone. I suspect that some of their family, some of their friends and some of the people with similar backgrounds to the naïve students share a lot of those misinformed views.

What does the naïve corruption view look like?

1) Americans and northern Europeans have high moral standards and are not corrupt. Southern Europeans and dark-skinned people are mostly corrupt although exceptions exist.

2) There are good people and bad people. If you threw out the bad people and put in good people, corruption would go away.

3) Since you can’t count on the dark-skinned people to throw out their bad people, the best alternative solution is to see that their governments don’t get any money. Hit them hard enough financially, and they will change. Or if not, it doesn’t really matter, since all of the money would have been stolen anyway.

It doesn’t quite occur to these Americans that there are plenty of times that money has been cut off to corrupt governments. Those financial punishments have done zero to make corruption go away.

It also doesn’t occur to the naïve group that no government agency, no matter how corrupt, steals 100 percent of its budget. Skimming off the top is not the same as taking everything in sight. If corrupt officials are simply taking bribes from outsiders, government money is still being used to provide goods and services. There may be shenanigans about building the airport. But the airport does get built. The economy improves from the improvement in air travel. Slash and burn approaches to government budgets neither cure corruption nor help the innocent citizens who are theoretically the victims of corruption.

So how does one explain why is corruption so pervasive in poorer nations? There is a vast, vast literature on this. If you took a college course on corruption and your professor were assigned all the books and articles that have been written on the subject, your reading load would be crushing.

Fortunately, Monica Prasad and her team of scholars have already done this work for you. Prasad and a large team of scholars, many of whom were at Northwestern University, did an exhaustive review of everything that has been written in social science about corruption. They discuss their findings in several places. However, for most people, the most important findings can be found in an article Prasad wrote in 2019 in Studies in Comparative International Development, “Approaches to Corruption: A Synthesis of the Scholarship”. The other co-authors were Mariana Borges Martins da Silva and Andre Nickow. That article makes four fundamental points:

1) Corruption Thrives When Government Is Too Ineffective to Provide Goods and Services to Everybody Through Routine Channels. In rich countries, government usually works well enough that most citizens have no problems getting routine services. Getting your house hooked up to the water system, getting a driver’s license or getting admission to a public university is no big deal. (You may not get your first choice of what public college you get to attend. But you will generally find some university that will take you – even if it is only a community college.) In poor countries, there may not be enough public goods to go around. Alternatively, the procedure for allocating those goods may be highly inefficient. Equally possible, poorly conceived government programs may make innocent citizens vulnerable due to unanticipated consequences of programs. The new wildlife preserve designed to save endangered species may displace thousands of people from land they were using to grow food.

When government does not work, corruption is often one of the few options available for corrective action. No one likes paying for a water hookup, or a college admission, or for the right to keep using land your family has been using for decades. But it is better than the alternative of no water, no education or no garden and no food.

2) Where Corruption Exists, People Take Pride in It as a Skill. Corruption is NOT easy. There is as much of an art to corruption as there is to any other complex human interaction. If you are too crude about making your offer, you will insult the person you are trying to work with. You also have to be sure that the person you are paying will actually honor their side of the deal. You may pay someone who actually doesn’t have the authority to do anything for you. You may also pay someone who just pockets your money and screws you over.

As a result, there is art and finesse involved in giving a good bribe. One has to learn to do things in a suave and sophisticated way. Furthermore, you have to be politically sophisticated enough to know who can be trusted and who actually has the power to do what.

Because giving a successful bribe is a bona fide accomplishment, people learn to take pride in their skill in corrupt dealings. They develop an ego stake in the maintenance in the status quo. To be sure, nearly everyone in the Global South deplores corruption and wishes it would go away. However, they take very real personal pride in their ability to play the game. They want everyone else’s corrupt channels to go away – but they want their own corrupt channels to stay open.

3) Corruption Which Is Viewed as Being Evil Is Closely Conflated With Gift-Giving Which Is Viewed as Being Good.  Gift-giving and the exchange of presents is an important component of solidarity networks in many countries, both rich and poor. Generosity is a virtue. You are supposed to give people gifts out of the goodness of your heart. You are supposed to show gratitude for favors received. Someone who does not give after having been the recipient of an act of goodwill, is seen as selfish, and not interested in the welfare of others. Ungrateful people are unworthy of receiving kindness in the future.

Corrupt acts are often wrapped in a mantle of mutual exchange and gift-giving. Most locals can differentiate between a bribe and a gift. However, the rules for doing this are specific to particular cultures, places, times and situations. There are also broad gray areas in which a financial transaction could be viewed as being either a bribe or a gift – or both.  A culture of gift exchange provides a moral foundation for resisting attempts to eliminate corruption entirely.

4) Loyalty to One’s Family or One’s Ethnic Group Reduces Impersonality in Government. In a non-corrupt world, government officials are supposed to be “universalistic”. This means they are supposed to treat everyone the same regardless of who they are or where they come from; everyone’s receipt or non-receipt of government benefits is supposed to depend on the objective merits of their case.

However, in societies with strong cultures of kinship loyalty, morality demands that one takes special care of one’s family. In family-based societies, kinship networks are extensive. Being a second or third cousin once removed by marriage still counts for something.

Societies with strong cultures of ethnic and tribal loyalty make comparable demands for favorable treatment of members of one’s home group. The United States is not entirely devoid of such tribal loyalties. Never mind race or gender discrimination. Old School Ties, the preferences of East Coast Urbanites for other East Coast Urbanites, or the preferences of Texans for Texans are all manifestations of tribal loyalty on a small scale.

Favoring one’s own can be a form of corruption – even if no money exchanges hands.

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Neither the Prasad team nor I would argue that these conditions make corruption impossible to remove. There are too many societies that have seen fundamental government reforms that cleaned up the Civil Service. Britain experienced such a transition in the Victorian era. Singapore underwent a significant clean-up in the government reforms that occurred after its separation from Malaysia.

However, the four factors described by Prasad, da Silva and Nickow certainly provide inertia that favors keeping corrupt systems in place. Poor people (and rich magnates) who would be closed out of a fair and impersonal system of government will work to defend a status quo that gives them some access to goods and services. People who value their own skill in playing the corruption game will be reluctant to lose a source of personal accomplishment. People who value gift-giving, who value interpersonal relations and who value loyalty to family and to their groups of origin, will feel immoral and opportunistic if they completely foreswear those debts of loyalty.

Corrupt people see themselves as being moral people. They also see themselves as being smart people. The deep personal satisfaction that comes from being a good person or being a worldly wise person is not irrelevant to how people react to anti-corruption campaigns.

If anti-corruption campaigns end up going nowhere, it is not because the people involved were intentionally choosing evil. They go nowhere because the people involved have other practical problems that need solving – and have other moral obligations that they need to respect.

Being preached at by Americans about how they need to clean up their act is not likely to change anything.

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