What Can Be Done?

By Klitgaard, Robert | UNESCO Courier, June 1996 | Go to article overview

What Can Be Done?


Klitgaard, Robert, UNESCO Courier


From government action to citizens' initiatives, an arsenal of weapons to fight corruption

Corruption is in the news again, and fitfully, almost schizophrenically, we, the public, respond. On the one hand we are outraged. We call for firings and purges, for a new constitution and perhaps a new morality. On the other hand, we are resigned, and we passively reflect that nothing really can be done about corruption. Isn't it everywhere a fact of life?

In this article I should like to examine three aspects of the problem. Firstly, what is corruption? Secondly, what can a government that wishes to control corruption actually do? And thirdly, what if a government doesn't want to control corruption as much as we, the public, would like it to do? What can we do as citizens?

What is corruption?

Corruption can be defined as the misuse of office for personal gain. Usage varies across countries and over time, and, at any particular place and time, law and custom may not coincide. Still, it is remarkable that throughout history, and around the world today, people have tended to agree that certain actions are "corrupt".

The real danger is the rise of systematic corruption, when the "rules of the game" are delegitimized by the perception that corruption can sway policies as well as particular contracts, can reshape legislation, and can make a mockery of the justice system(1). Systematic corruption generates economic costs by distorting incentives, political costs by undermining institutions, and social costs by redistributing wealth and power toward the rich and privileged. When corruption undermines property rights, the rule of law, and incentives to invest, economic and political development are crippled.

Corruption exists in all countries and, as recent events have revealed, is a major problem in many rich nations. But corruption tends to be more damaging in some developing countries because it has a more devastating effect on property rights, the rule of law and incentives to invest. Systematic corruption now seems to threaten political and economic reforms in a number of countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.

What is also news is that the international community is now discussing corruption openly, whereas even a decade ago the issue was virtually taboo(2). Why is corruption surfacing now as an international priority? One idea that has been put forward is that systematic corruption is growing worse. Another cites the rapid rise of international trade and international communications, so that people are exposed to economic temptations as never before. Yet another points to the political and economic reforms that have swept the world and have created new opportunities for corruption by rapidly changing the accustomed rules of the game and, in many cases, because policy changes are not accompanied by sufficient development of the institutions and the public-sector incentives needed to make free markets and democracy work.

Or are we simply becoming less tolerant of corruption? One possibility is that we perceive corruption to be a greater obstacle now that the Cold War has abated and economic policies and multiparty polities are roughly "got right". Another possibility is that we blame corruption for the fact that neither freer markets nor democratic reforms have yet lived up to expectations, in order that we can avoid admitting that those policies and polities may not be right everywhere. Or perhaps we have become more aware of corruption because political reforms have granted new freedoms to document it and complain about it.

Whatever the reasons for today's greater concern over corruption, it is a change we should welcome. Corruption is a problem that has for too long been overlooked. What exactly can be done to attack deeply rooted corruption?

Virtually all countries have laws that condemn extortion, bribery, speed money, fraud and embezzlement, kickbacks, nepotism and other forms of corruption. …

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