Problematizing Corruption

I just finished (finally) reading Michela Wrong’s latest book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle Blower. I’m not going to review the book, per se, but I do recommend it to anyone interested in East African politics, corruption, foreign aid, diplomacy, etc. More than anything, it has made me think more deeply about this problem we have called corruption.

What has really been bothering me of late is that it seems for too many people, corruption isn’t a problem. Wrong quotes a journalist saying of Kenya, “Steal a mobile in this country and you get lynched, steal $100 million and you get to run as MP”. This is also true, to some degree, in Uganda. You can easily be killed for stealing a chicken, but steal from the Global Fund and…um…well, you can just sit tight in your Bugolobi or Kololo mansion. Yes, people talk — some of them, for a while…but ultimately the story dies and the big shots soldier on. The media picks up on the next big story, perhaps even a fire or collapsing building that is actually the consequence of corruption, and the previous story is forgotten. Corruption is like a mosquito buzzing around your bed at night — bothersome, but not annoying enough to make you get up and squash, so you roll over and keep sleeping. Which is too bad, since you may very well fall ill with malaria as a result of your inaction.

Ok, maybe that’s a lame analogy, but you get the point. If corruption is not seen as a “problem” to those it affects the most, how can we ever end it? Like malaria actually. Why do you think people have used mosquito nets as fishing nets and for bridal gowns instead of using them to prevent malaria? Clearly how one uses a mosquito net is a conscious choice, and people are responding to incentives in deciding how best to use a net (which they are sometimes given for free). Reducing the prevalence of malaria, like reducing corruption, will not happen by shoving solutions down people’s throats, and it may even make the problem worse (as Andrew Mwenda will argue has occurred with anti-corruption agencies in Uganda, such as the IGG). We need to start thinking differently about how corruption works and thrives in different environments. I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all solution.

I will conclude with one of my favorite bits from Wrong’s book, in the Epilogue, page 327:

One of the many lessons of John Githongo’s story is that the key to fighting graft in Africa does not lie in fresh legislation or new institutions. To use the seemingly counter-intuitive phrase of Danny Kaufmann, expert on sleaze: ‘You don’t fight corruption by fighting corruption.’ Most African states already have the gamut of tools required to do the job. A Prevention of Corruption Act has actually been on the Kenyan statute book since 1956. ‘You don’t need any more bodies, you don’t need any more laws, you just need good people and the will,’ says Hussein Were. In Kenya, as in many other countries, the KACC [Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission] is part of the grand corrupters’ game, providing them with another bureaucratic wall behind which to shield, another scapegoat to blame for lack of progress. Rather than dreaming up sexy-sounding short cuts, donors should be pouring their money into the boring old institutions African regimes have deliberately starved of cash over the years: the police force, judicial system and civil service.

See Wrong’s interview with Transparency International here.

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