Public Enemy Number 1

This article by Shaun originally appeared on Global Health Hub. See other stories about global health issues here.

President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim recently touted corruption as ‘public enemy number 1’. Jim Kim is not the first World Bank President to attempt to address the issue, Jim Wolfensohn broached the subject back in 1996 when many still consider it taboo.  A lot has changed in development since the 1990s, but the subject of corruption is still something that doesn’t get as much attention as it perhaps should.

David Cameron also stirred the pot on the subject nearly a year ago with his vision as one of the world leaders charged with chairing the UN’s post 2015 development agenda. In it he argues his case for “the golden thread” of conditions to improve economies. While he doesn’t take as large a jab at corruption as Mr. Kim has done, he nonetheless hints at his distaste for it while advocating for a voice for the so many voiceless. Ultimately, Cameron’s position for the UN was a big change from the status quo and one I believe noble if not lofty; for using aid as a catalyst for improving governance and achieving sustainable growth should be at the core of the development agenda.

While this position may be beginning to gain traction in some circles, other academics have argued that “westerners care about corruption far out of proportion to its impact on poverty alleviation and economic growth.” This can be either true or false I believe depending on how loosely or broadly you chose to define corruption. With a broad enough brush stroke corruption can encompass all areas of development from health care to poverty to education or land rights issues.

Going back to Kim’s claim that corruption must be at the center of every development leader’s work he went on to say, “Every dollar that a corrupt official or a corrupt business person puts in their pocket is a dollar stolen from a pregnant woman who needs health care”. From this bold statement I would surmise that Mr. Kim has a rather broad definition of corruption as well. It should not then be thought of as simply an economic burden which stifles small enterprise and decreases the incentive of outside investors to an economy. It is in fact much greater a burden.

Transparency International gives a simple yet robust definition that I particularly like: “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Using this definition it is much easier to see how the role of corruption may have played into the recent coups and following civil unrest happening now in the CAR and South Sudan. Would the incentive for such atrocities still be there if the victors were prevented from pocketing any public funds in the aftermath? If we blame a government’s inability to provide healthcare or education on the misappropriation of funds and misuse of power by those entrusted to provide such services then we begin to see the limitation of even the most benevolent types of aid within the confines of corruption.

So why is corruption still such a fiercely controversial topic? One reason, I think, is the theoretical case is so complex. Beyond the arguments over definitions there are countless points and counter points to be had arguing the implications of corruption on different rungs of society.  A second is the fear of losing donors; many foundations fear that if their contributors learn even a little bit of aid money is stolen, the public will recoil in disgust and flip to the side of economist like Dambisa Moyo and call for the end of all aid. A third is a simple matter of politics – many large organizations such as USAID, Global Fund, and even the World Bank for a number of years were scared to verbalize corruption issues for fear of alienating a large number of governments of the countries they’re operating in.

Until we can begin to have honest debates about the impact of corruption without fear or anxiety we are not going to begin to formulate effective ways of stopping corruption. We must develop a policy armed with economic theory and comprehensive technology tools, similar to those used to track the movements of funds in the Philippines. Fortunately the UN and World Bank are moving in that direction. We must also determine better methods for measuring levels of corruption, such as those advocated by Peter Murrell. Finally, we will need to be realistic about the pace of change we set, so as not to unfairly punish aid recipients.

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