Tag Archive | corruption

Do politicians cause famines?

So many great, honest quotes from John Githongo, who works on good governance in Kenya, from a November 2012 interview with the Economist about corruption in Kenya (that I wish I’d seen earlier but is still worth sharing):

A drought is made by God, a famine is made by man. Drought is big money for the corrupt elite—because it gives you the opportunity to import maize and other staples into the country and make a killing off of the backs of hungry people.

The key implication from his words is that imported maize (corn) and other crops are actually cheaper by weight than crops grown locally in Kenya, because agriculture (including fertilizers, pesticides, and good seeds) is often more subsidized in the US, the EU, and in other developed countries than in Kenya. As a result, political elites can make large profits fairly easily, in the name of helping people. This is more than just a problem of Kenyan political corruption, and probably wouldn’t change even if the level of corruption went down.

Kenya is more corrupt than other African countries. It’s our history. At independence, the state that emerged was a colonial one in many respects – small, aggressive, violent and engineered to serve the interests of only a small elite. Corruption can create an elite which creates a system of patronage that in itself produces a level of stability, where the goodies are being shared out by an elite, and a bit of it trickles down to the poor. Those poor who complain are locked up or killed, and that’s the way it has been for a long time.

I was surprised by this one, both for its honesty and its conclusions. China and its investors have been linked to corruption and exploitation in Africa, and particularly because they target mineral extraction and other resource-intensive industries. Extraction of rare earth metals and fuel result in huge profits but usually require well-educated [foreign] specialists; as a result, very few locals benefit in terms of jobs or payoffs unless contracts explicitly require paying a significant portion of profits to the community. Governments are often hesitant to set strict profit-sharing demands, though, for fear of scaring away investors.

But Kenya isn’t exactly at the center of the diamond, oil, natural gas, copper, coal, and other mineral extraction in Africa, even if the amount extracted is no longer zero. At the same time, Kenyan firms are said to devote 4% of all their sales income on bribes–enough to be hiring 250,000 new employees if the corruption were to stop. And Kenya isn’t actually the worst, according to many sources (though it’s hard to figure out exactly who is worst):

The World Bank’s CPIA Index on government transparency, accountability, and corruption surprisingly ranked Bhutan, St. Lucia, and the Cape Verde islands as having the worst corruption in 2011 (of the countries they were able to rank).

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

Transparency International, in contrast, ranked Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan as tied for worst corruption in 2012.

The Sunlight Foundation's map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though  there is clearly progress to be made.

The Sunlight Foundation’s map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though there is clearly progress to be made.

Regardless of exactly how corrupt Kenya and other developing countries are measured to be, it is in everyone’s best interest to improve.

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Update: For an interesting take on the cultural/psychological/sociological reasons behind perpetuated corruption, especially in developing countries, see Kathleen Reedy’s freshly pressed post on corruption in Afghanistan.

The next Nobel Peace Prize goes to…

Here’s to hoping that Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi is at least considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. I have no idea how his work (turning around all the corrupt orphanages run by the Afghani government) made it to the NYT, or what keeps him going despite all the threats from incumbent, well-connected orphanage directors, or how he’s doing a better job at age 29 than most people twice his age… but I’m glad I came across his story nonetheless.

[I at least think he’s a more worthwhile candidate than Obama was, but that’s besides the point.] What’s more important is figuring out how to facilitate the work done by him and others like him in developing countries, who have fantastic ideas, refuse to abide by the status quo of corrupt government bureaucracies, and are often sidetracked, discouraged, or stopped altogether once they upset the wrong [well-connected] person.

To say, as an economist would, that government officials and others that perpetuate corruption aren’t paid enough, isn’t good enough in my opinion. They may not be paid enough, but that can be said for the vast majority of people in developing countries. To say, as a sociologist might, that these are deeply-ingrained norms perpetuated by the culture and its people, isn’t good enough either. But the combination of these two, now that holds promise.

A great paper by Sunil Sondhi addressing the history and dynamics of corruption in India outlines 4 main courses of action to combat corruption:

  1. Demonstrated political commitment to combatting corruption
  2. Administrative accountability (and enforcement)
  3. Procedural simplification
  4. Active & vigilant civil society groups (like national chapters of Transparency International)

While Mr. Sondhi seems to imply that actions by a government must necessarily come first (such as creating independent government bodies to monitor corruption), I think that this can only come after enough people rally against corruption, especially in the case of non-democracies (as in, countries where citizens have little political say and whose opinions are often overlooked). Politicians have few incentives to curb corruption unless the people responsible for their staying in office no longer approve of the politician’s practices and can stage a revolt. I liked Mr. Sondhi’s idea of Gandhi-style non-violent mass protests (in particular, “24 hour relay fasts” staged at the same time as parliamentary sessions), though this might not work in places where food insecurity and starvation are the norm…

——– Update:

Funny how there’s an article in the IHT about the Indian anti-corruption efforts a few hours after I wrote my post. The author essentially claims that the anti-corruption movement, started a few months ago by Anna Hazare, an aging old man with outdated opinions, has failed due to the fact that people couldn’t actually relate to his views once they found out what they were. However, it pointed out a deeper flaw in the system: that the majority of Indians who had market and political power, and who would stand to benefit from less corruption–the growing middle class–have not actually done much themselves. They may have written blogs and articles lamenting of the corruption, but did nothing to mobilize themselves and actually change their own behavior. It’s a lot easier to say that you support one man (in this case, Anna Hazare) who supposedly represents you, and to say that you’re too busy to rally because of your work and family obligations.

And maybe that’s why protests in Egypt and Tunisia worked — the majority of the masses in the beginning were unemployed and/or unmarried. Something to keep in mind for those that will hopefully take up the challenge after Hazare …