Corruption: myths and solutions

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall Confronting corruption is not a good path to popularity. Sparks flew between Kabul and … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

Confronting corruption is not a good path to popularity. Sparks flew between Kabul and Washington last week as Hamid Karzai shot back against U.S. officials who admonished him to get serious in that department. A large donor gathering in New York looking to build a new Haiti rarely strayed far from the corruption sore spot. Daily jabs are traded in the District of Columbia about scandals, old and new.

The “C” word even creeps into the furor over Catholic Church responses to priestly abuse, evoking Vatican indignation. That’s hardly surprising, because confronting corruption is an ancient religious imperative. The Church is supposed to stop corruption. Even the whiff of accusations stings.

Corruption is a nasty topic. It is about abuse of power and trust, greed, and exploitation of the weak. But well-meaning efforts to confront corruption are too often stymied by myths and by a tendency to preach rather than act. It’s worth recalling that we know a lot more about fighting corruption today than we did even a decade ago. We need to confront the myths and use the tools we have for action.

One of the worst enemies of those fighting corruption is the myth that it is inevitable. That argument is embedded in much commentary about very different cases, from Kabul to St. Peter’s to Port-au-Prince. If you buy the inevitability argument, most efforts to confront corruption look pretty futile. There are great success stories, famously Hong Kong and Singapore, which turned corruption sewers into functioning governments. In many cities, citizens can now register the birth of a child without a payoff, students can take exams without paying the teacher, and smug landlords wind up in court. For Haiti, Bob Klitgaard from Claremont Graduate University has set out a detailed plan of action. There are similar blueprints for Afghanistan.

Technology can be a fantastic tool for efficiency and accountability, and it can transform situations in very poor communities. Simply publishing the amounts that are supposed to be spent on school construction or books for students can make a dramatic difference in getting money where it is supposed to go. Investigative journalists are critical players. Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant for corrupt practices, which thrive in the dark.

There’s also the “there but for the grace of God go I” story. In a southeast Asian country, a meeting with judges from North America was silenced when one person asked a U.S. judge what his salary was, cited his own tiny one, said “case closed”, and sat down.  Many are queasy about going after a corrupt “little fish,” say a pharmacy worker who sells expired drugs, when the “big fish” politician acts with impunity. The answer can’t be one or the other: it has to be both.

Petty corruption is a hideous enemy of public trust and devastates the poorest and weakest citizens, while the massive theft of public funds and diminished confidence in government are linked more to megacorruption.

Another common argument is that corruption has many faces and that no one is blameless. How can we, from wealthy societies, apply our self-righteous standards when it is our large corporations that pay the bribes?  And what about the deeply corrupting influence of big money on our political system?

Among religious communities, worries about such double standards and “beating up on the little guy” are often the reason people give for a hesitation to join the anti-corruption fray. But, facing the needs of a Haiti or an Afghanistan, we just can’t wait for a universal fix. We can be firm and show some humility at the same time.

In discussions about development assistance, it rarely takes long for the corruption issue to come up. There’s an old chestnut that development assistance takes money from the poor in rich countries and gives it to the rich in poor countries. There’s an inkling of truth there, though my experience is that most development assistance is actually pretty well spent. What’s important is that we can do better and assuring honest use of funds is not an option: it’s essential.

We can and we must confront corruption, everywhere but most of all where it corrodes and undermines programs that aim at social justice.

It’s a nasty and complicated problem but we can do something about it.

We have the knowledge and we have experience that shows how. It’s time to shift the discussion from myths and problems to experience and solutions.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
April 5, 2010; 12:02 PM ET

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Faith in Action

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  • ThomasBaum

    Katherine Marshall There will always be corruption in this imperfect world but that should not blind people to the almost unlimited ways that one can reach out.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • YEAL9

    Brad Hirschfield: When Priests And Rabbis Commit Sexual AbuseMar 29, 2010 ……“The words used by Pope Benedict and others in responding to the Church’s ever-deepening sexual abuse crises reflect a sickness that is not unique to the Catholic community. In fact, that sickness creeps into all religious communities of which I know, and leaves a trail of victims in its wake every time. I refer to the way in which religious leaders and the communities which they lead wear the mantle of victimhood to cover their naked moral failings.”