Monday, April 14, 2014

Anti- Anti-corruption -- Part I!: The practical problems with anti-corruption

I will respond later to Mariana’s rebuttal to my claim that one of the appeals of anti-corruption discourse among the law and development community may lie in its character as a “self-congratulatory and self-serving discourse of developed countries.  But for now, I will continue discussing the problems of what I regard as our developmentalist ‘obsession’ (a hyperbole tendered in the hope that it will provoke comment) with anti-corruption, because it responds to another important point raised by Mariana in her just-posted response.

In that response, Mariana posits that:
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).

Mariana is right that simply pointing out ideological problems with the discourse does not (by itself) constitute a critique of the actual value of that discourse – good results can come from false reasons (see, e.g., Plato’s concept of the ‘noble myth’ or ‘noble lie’).  But my concern with our obsession with anti-corruption derives not simply from its ideological problems. i

i Practically, our obsession with anti-corruption can work to make the perfect by the enemy of the good insofar as developmental projects are concerned.  An example of this is found in the ADB and WB’s response to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, when their obsession with the ‘corruption’ that they claimed had caused that crisis caused them to forego, and even obstruct, particular responses that actually turned out to be more effective in addressing the social impact of that crisis that those they themselves developed.  An example of this is found in the WB/IMF resistance to and obstruction of a program developed by the Miyazawa Fund of Japan that sought to distribute social welfare assistance to rural Thailand by using clientistic and neo-patriomonial political networks to identify target populations.  The WB/IMF opposed this approach because they believed it would end up simply reproducing the ‘crony capitalism’ that they argued had caused the crisis in the first place.  Instead, they implemented a social welfare program that relied on competitive bidding.  But their program was completely unable to identify target populations.  One the other hand, the Miyazawa Fund approach turned out to be quite successful in delivering much needed social welfare protections to needy rural populations..

As noted above, the reason why the WB/IMF opposed the Miyazawa approach was because they felt that it would encourage the very corruption that the WB/IMF believed had caused that the Asian Financial Crisis.  In fact, however, the general understanding today is that the AFC was not caused by crony capitalism and associated corruption.  Moreover, subsequent studies found little corruption in the distribution of Miyazawa funds.  Here, I would argue, we have a clear example of our obsession with corruption causing us to reflexively forego and even obstruct a very useful developmental response.

(For a more detailed discussion of this incident, see Pasuk Phongpaichit  & Chris Baker, Thailand's Crisis (2001).)

Another dimension of this derives from the anti-corruption discourse’s tendency, discussed in my previous post, to encourage an uncritical belief in the powers of (Western) human agency to promote ‘development’ however we envision it.  For reasons I may explain in some future post, there is good reason to suspect that there is actually little we can to do promote ‘development’ as that development is most commonly conceived, i.e., as convergence with the economic, social, and political conditions enjoyed by advanced industrial economies, and particularly those of the North Atlantic.  This being the case, what we should be doing is not pretending that we can make everyone become ‘developed’ simply by getting them to ‘get their institutional right’ (often primarily by getting rid of corruption).  Rather, what we should be thinking more realistically about how we can promote people’s lives in under enduring conditions of lesser levels of economic development.
Some developmental scholars have already begun doing this.   

Good examples include Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Poor Economics (2011) and Charles Kenny’s Getting Better (2011).  But what is particularly notable about these two works is how little issues of corruption enter into their analyses.  Following on other observations made above, what this suggests is that (1) there may well be very litte that developmentalism can actually do about corruption (see my previous post); but (2) eliminating corruption is not a critical aspect of improving the lives of most people living in poverty in the Global South.  This being the case, then it would seem that the resources we are currently devoting to anti-corruption programs would as least sometimes be much better spent on programs of the sort advocated by Banerjee/Duflo and by Kenny.  But the current developmental obsession with corruption prevents us from exploring when and where this might be the case.  
This is not to argue that we should simply ignore corruption.  Corruption does have its costs, and they are important.  For example, perceptions of corruption de-legitimate governmental authority, and thus increase the cost of regulatory effectiveness above and beyond whatever the direct regulatory costs of corruption are.  But here, too, I see a possible problem with Western corruption discourse, not in promoting awareness of corruption, but in causing people to become more sensitive to the possibilities of corruption.  We might note that in many developing countries, corruption discourse is particularly popular with middle class urbanites, and they use this discourse to de-legitimate governments that bend toward the more rural or lower-class social classes.  In both Thailand and the Ukraine, corruption discourse has been used to legitimate, particularly among the international community, urban middle-class effort to overturn popular, democratic election of parties and leaders whose political support and social policies served to support rural and lower-class interests.  To me, this is another example of the practical problems caused by our 'obsession' with anti-corruption.

* There's a bug in the blogger program which messes up the formatting. Sorry about that.

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