There will always be a resistance to measuring results as long as the people who are in power to serve poor people have perverse incentives to maintain people in poverty. Corrupt leadership is when you don’t have to suffer the consequences of your own decisions.
- Robert Woodson

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  • George Ayittey on Foreign Aid and the Leaking Bowl

    Imagine, Africa has a begging bowl and that into this begging bowl comes… foreign aid. But this bowl has holes in it, so it leaks. There’s a massive hole here through which corruption alone cost Africa $148 billion dollars. That’s a massive leak. What should be done first – plugging the leaks or putting more aid money in? Now this is something which even an elementary school student should be able to answer. I mean, you pouring more and more and more into the bowl and then it leaks. Defining insanity: as doing the same thing over and over and over and again and expecting different results—makes no sense.

    More from George Ayittey
  • Doug Seebeck on the Potential for Corruption in Business

    Do some businesses exploit? Yes… it’s like any institution…. I think the larger and more removed the business or church or government become from the people they claim to serve, that’s when abuse can start happening—because organizations, by their nature, can turn in on themselves. They can lose their original purpose … their reason for being.

    More from Doug Seebeck
  • Robert Woodson on the Poverty Industrial Complex

    There is a poverty industrial complex. You’ve got huge numbers of people who profit off our differences. You see, if you are problem oriented, you can write about the problem, you can lecture about the problem, you can consult on the problem. You can do everything but solve the problem.

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  • Robert Woodson on Accountability

    There will always be a resistance to measuring results as long as the people who are in power to serve poor people have perverse incentives to maintain people in poverty. To me, corrupt leadership is when you don’t have to suffer the consequences of your own decisions.

    More from Robert Woodson
  • Calvin Edwards on Microfinance Circumventing Corruption

    You have several obstacles broken down by the microfinance organization … where there is corruption and sort of essentially a locking out by the elite class of the public class to the systems and the assets that are needed to build a business—private organizations that provide microfinance just practically bypass the whole system. All of a sudden a person can do that which they were not able to do with the corrupted governmental systems so one of the geniuses of it is it bypasses all those systems.

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  • Andreas Widmer on No Longer Responsive to the People

    The governments of poor countries, they are responsive and responsible to the aid organizations and to the U.N. and to all that and not to their own people. I think that is one of the key reasons you have all of this corruption, because they’re not— they don’t care about who votes; they care about who gives them money.

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  • Lydie Hakizimana on Discouragement

    When you have corruption in a country, people are just discouraged. There is no hope. They don’t see themselves successful in the long term. They just feel that they need to know a minister or the son of the minister to be successful in a country.

    When there’s a lot of corruption in the country, there is no hope. I think hope is really, really important, because with hope you can have ideas, with hope you can can think of a better future, with hope you can take the risk. But when you see that the government is not putting in place that environment that can help you to have that hope, it’s just useless.

    More from Lydie Hakizimana
  • Lydie Hakizimana on Missed Opportunities

    Corruption leads to a lot of missed opportunities. Corruption stops someone to think that he can be an entrepreneur. Corruption makes you fear, actually. You just fear to take the risk.

    More from Lydie Hakizimana

Corruption Defined

In the context of political economy, corruption refers to an illegal transaction that harms the group the agent is obliged to serve through the transaction. For example, a construction company may offer a kickback to a government official (agent) in return for winning a contract outside the normal bidding process. The official has harmed the government he serves and, by extension, the people it represents because the government probably will pay more for the job than it would have under a competitive process. The issue of corruption in politics and the marketplace is of interest to development economists because it often hamstrings poor countries in their efforts to rise out of poverty through enterprise.


Table of Contents

  • Corruption Defined
  • The Cost of Corruption
  • Corruption as an Obstacle to Development
  • The Corruption Perception Index
  • Corruption as an Immoral Choice
  • Fighting Corruption

The Cost of Corruption

Besides being immoral, corruption tends to be an inefficient way to bring together buyers and sellers. Because it is by definition illegal—even when it is common and accepted—corruption naturally tends to be private and secretive. In a private arrangement, there is no guarantee that the good or service being bought carries a market price. That is, another buyer may be willing to pay more, or another seller may be willing to sell for less, but it is impossible to know because the market is not public. Further, resources are expended in the effort to maintain the secrecy of the transactions. Finally, corrupt contracts, because they are illegal, must be enforced in extralegal fashion. Thus a corrupt system is an inherently inefficient system.

In some cases corruption might be reasonably viewed as the most expedient option. For example, in a country with excessive bureaucratic hurdles to starting a business, bribery may be a way to speed the process. This is only a stop gap, of course, since it leaves in place a system that serves the corrupt by providing numerous opportunities to demand bribe money and to tilt the playing field to the advantage of friends, family and political patrons.


Corruption as an Obstacle to Development

The monetary cost of corruption is slower economic growth. Studies have shown that decreasing corruption leads to significant gains in foreign direct investment, which is one of the chief spurs to development. Economist Shan-Jin Wei has argued that corruption is proportionately more damaging to economic growth than is taxation of business. In terms of its discouraging effect on investment, Wei found, “An increase in the corruption level from that of Singapore to that of Mexico is equivalent to raising the tax rate on multinationals by over twenty percentage points.”

Turning international business investment away is only one of several ways that corruption stifles growth. “Corruption and Poverty,” a review essay commissioned by USAID, summarizes its findings with a long list of negative effects: “Corruption impedes economic growth by discouraging foreign and domestic investment, taxing and dampening entrepreneurship, lowering the quality of public infrastructure, decreasing tax revenues, diverting public talent into rent-seeking, and distorting the composition of public expenditure.” (Rent seeking is an economics term referring to any effort to profit not by adding value but by manipulating a market’s social or political environment in order to gain an artificial advantage.)

The authors of the review also point out that corruption exacerbates income inequality. They find that this link is due to several negative effects of corruption, including distortion of the “legal and policy frameworks allowing some to benefit more than others”; “unfair distribution of government resources and services”; and “lower income households (and businesses) pay[ing] a higher proportion of their income in bribes” than wealthier households.


The Corruption Perception Index

In light of these observations, it is no surprise that nations with high levels of public sector corruption face major development challenges (while nations with relatively low levels of political corruption tend to thrive economically). This is apparent from even a cursory look at Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which measures the reputations of national governments with respect to corruption. In 2010, the five worst-scoring countries on the CPI were Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. The top five were Denmark, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland and Sweden.


Corruption as an Immoral Choice

Although political reforms may diminish inducements to corruption, it is important to remember that every instance of corruption is an individual decision. Even where corruption is common and widely accepted, people can choose not to engage in it. And even where it is rare and stigmatized, people may initiate a corrupt transaction.

Corruption is a serious violation of justice, because it benefits some at the expense of others without legitimate reason. It erodes the bonds of trust between people within a community, and between people and the government officials who are supposed to represent their interests. Corruption also tends to favor the well-connected while locking out those who are poor and lack high-level connections.


Fighting Corruption

One strategy for combating corruption is simply to limit the extent of state authority. Expansive regulation (such as business licensing) creates ample opportunity and temptation to rig the process in favor of one or another participant. Where government has narrowly defined powers that keep it out of such decision-making, the rule of law is encouraged and corruption discouraged.

Thus, it’s important that government regulatory law curtail the discretion permitted to individual officials. Where gatekeepers in the bureaucracy have wide leeway to interpret and apply the law, the potential for corruption increases. This strategy is no substitute for virtue, of course, since a measure of interpretive leeway is necessary and inevitable in any system of government.

The costs of fighting corruption through government channels also must be realistically assessed. Government anti-corruption initiatives may be costly and may possess some of the same features that promoted corruption in the first place (e.g., layers of bureaucracy and limited resources that force bureaucrats to choose who to focus on and who to ignore).

Thus, while corruption must never be viewed as an acceptable practice, advocates of the rule of law should be realistic about the prospects for its elimination. The inherent weaknesses in political initiatives to limit political corruption also should serve as a spur for cultures to combat corruption by other means, as through the work of civil institutions (e.g., churches, fraternal organizations) in emphasizing the cultivation of personal virtue. When people become convinced that corruption is harmful to society and damaging to their own moral integrity, and when they possess the courage to act accordingly, then a culture is better positioned to make progress in the fight against corruption in politics and the market.


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