Corruption Reduction: A Foreign Policy Goal and Instrument

Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Corruption Reduction: A Foreign Policy Goal and Instrument


AMITAI ETZIONI is Professor of International Relations at George Washington University. He served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House and has authored 22 books. In 2001, Etzioni was named among the top 100 American intellectuals in a study by Richard Posner.

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Reports suggest that local populations in some of the most contested areas in Afghanistan, including Kandahar, are more troubled by corruption than by the Taliban. In these and many other parts of the country, citizens are stopped at numerous checkpoints, through which they can pass only if they pay a bribe. Businesses and professionals typically cannot get permits without greasing the palms of officials. Judges are much influenced by "donations." Drug dealers are protected by the police. The head of state, President Hamid Karzai, even admitted to receiving bags of cash from Iran, adding that, "The United States is doing the same thing, providing the cash to some of our offices." Votes are often purchased, and various layers of the military hierarchy "skim" the salaries paid to troops. More cash is carried out of Afghanistan to banks overseas than foreign aid brings in.

Curbing corruption is granted much importance these days because the United States has shifted its strategy in Iraq, and even more so in Afghanistan, from a traditional military posture to counterinsurgency (COIN), in which winning the hearts and minds of the population is essential for victory. Such a shift in the population's loyalties is, in turn, thought to require developing a native partner government that is both legitimate and effective. Curbing corruption is considered to be an important element in developing such a government. The World Bank, which for decades considered it inappropriate to circumvent national governments, is now much more inclined to collaborate directly with civic bodies or local organizations and businesses if a national government is corrupt. Fighting corruption has also become a more important element of humanitarian aid. For instance, after the earthquake in Haiti, many called for working around rather than with the corrupt Haitian government. Meanwhile, others argued for "rebuilding" the government so that it could effectively administer aid. All of these worthy endeavors are likely to fail because they set their sights too high, deal with exceedingly vague goals, and seek to change the local culture rather than build upon it.

Limitations of Long-distance Societal Engineering

Societal changes occur all the time, but these are "natural" changes in the sense that, like rivers changing their banks, no one wills or directs them. However, societal engineering - deliberate, manmade, societal change - is like making rivers reverse their flow; it is very difficult to accomplish with lasting success. Contrary to popular belief, advancing societal changes according to one's design typically requires a much greater and longer commitment of a considerable variety of resources, which is often unmet. This observation is critical for the issue at hand because curbing corruption is a form of societal engineering. Indeed, uprooting corruption, with its numerous and far-reaching foundations in society, is particularly challenging.

The sociological thesis concerning the difficulties that social engineers face gained much following in the 1980s when neoconservatives pointed out that most of the liberal Great Society programs introduced in the United States in the 1960s had failed. The government was unable to eradicate poverty, help minorities catch up, improve public schools, or stop drug abuse. More generally, neoconservatives argued that it was wrong to assume that a combination of programs fashioned by civil servants and large amounts of money could solve social problems. Even so, as of 2003, these same neoconservatives in effect maintained that what the United States could not do in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, it could do in Mosul, Sadr City, and even Marja and Kandahar.

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