Sunday, April 13, 2014

Anti-Corruption: a response to Michael Dowdle (part I)

In an insightful and provocative post entitled Anti-Anti-Corruption, Michael Dowdle suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the anti-corruption discourse in the development field. This is my attempt to partially respond to it.

Dowdle's argument is organized in three points: (i) there is not evidence that corruption is damaging to growth; (ii) it is a self-congratulatory and self- serving discourse of developed countries, to justify why they are wealthy and the rest of the world is not; (iii) it allows us to continue to believe we can interfere and change outcomes in our own societies. I will leave the first and third points for future posts, as they deserve more space than I should take in a single post.
As to second point, I think it seems to ignore two important turns in the anti-corruption discourse. 

The first turn occurred in the 1980s, when Susan Rose-Ackerman, challenging modernization theory, used the rational actor model and new institutional economics to reject the idea of corruption as a societal and cultural phenomenon. Corrupt behavior was then conceived as a result of a system of institutional incentives (Rose-Ackerman, 1999). This first turn largely rejected any claim of moral superiority, grounding the discourse on the idea that the institutional context (not your intrinsic moral values) matter the most. This became the prevailing theoretical framework since them.

The second turn occurred in the 1990s, when the idea that there is a demand side and a supply side of corruption lead the OECD to promulgate the first multilateral convention to combat bribery of foreign officials – the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. This document not only acknowledged that developed countries were part of the problem, but it also set up monitoring mechanisms for the signatories to check on their progresses in adopting legislation to combat corruption, as well as in monitoring and enforcing these provisions.

In sum, it is hard to see a discourse of moral superiority in the terms in which the debate has been framed in the past 20 years both in academia and in policy circles. 

Perhaps, Dowdle's concern is not with the specific terms according to which the debate has been framed by academics and policy makers, but with the fact that it has had undesirable ideological consequences (which are distinguishable from the motivations that guided those formulating policies and theories). If that is his point, my response is that many things we do have undesirable ideological consequences, but this is not necessarily a reason not to pursue them.* 

For instance, Foucault challenges the idea that the creation of prisons was a victory of humanism over corporal punishment. Instead, he says: "It is not enough to say, with the 18th-century "reformers," that "humanization" and "progress" explained and justified this radical change in the penal system. (...)" 

When inquired about this in an interview:  

Q. Then, all the talk and activity about prison "reform" and "humanization" is just subterfuge? 

Foucault replies: 

A. It seems to me that whether the prisoners get an extra chocolate bar on Christmas or are let out to make their Easter Duty is not the real political issue. What we have to denounce is not so much the "human" side of life in prison but rather their real social function-that is, to serve as the instrument that creates a criminal milieu that the ruling classes can control."

Acknowledging that Foucault is right does not imply that we will necessarily advocate reverting back to the polices that we had before prisons, i.e. bodies being "branded, amputated, wrenched apart". 

Thus, the question that needs to be addressed is what are the gain (and losses) of fighting corruption, and whether there is evidence to support the idea that such gains (and losses) exist. I will address this point in my next post.

*Note: I would like to thank Marcio Grandchamp for helping me formulate this point, and for suggesting the example. Any errors are mine.   



  1. Dear Marcio:

    Can you please stop helping Mariana in this debate? She doesn't need it -- I do. ;-)

    1. After your reply, I will need an army of academics to help me out, Michael! Or I maybe I can bribe you to post something that is easier to respond to? I can justify the bribe as necessary for the growth of the blog ;)