WHY is corruption (defined here as the misuse of public office for private gain) perceived to be more widespread in some countries than others?
Understanding this is important for several reasons.
First, corruption has been blamed for the failures of certain “developing” countries to develop.
It is safe to say that amongst many of my dealings and conversations with fellow Basotho of different ages and social backgrounds over the years, many of them feel the corruption is the main obstacle to our country’s development.
The same conclusion can be extended to other Africans and generally citizens of the developing world.
Corruption scandals have sparked public outrage in countries across the globe over the last few years and on every continent at least one incumbent regime has been forced out of force under a cloud.
At the same time corruption has been viewed as a main stumbling block for many former colonial lands in attempting to consolidate democratic institutions and open market economies.
Yet very little up until now has been known conclusively about what causes corruption to be higher in one place than in another.
The difficulty of measuring levels of corruption in different countries has presented a major obstacle.
However, economists and political scientists have in recent times begun to analyse indexes of “perceived” corruption prepared by risk analysts and monitoring agencies based on survey responses of business people and local residents.
The questions at the core of our discussion then are really, why do officials misuse public office for private gain and why do those in countries such as Lesotho seem to do so more often and for relatively larger payoffs?
Economists and political scientists have offered various conjectures and the main prevailing ones as per a study done by political scientist Daniel Treisman (2009) are the following:
History and Culture
It seems that a culture of distrust and private-spiritedness fosters a demand for corrupt services. The greater perceived uncertainty of entering into partnerships with strangers may impede legitimate private business activity.
The suspicion that competitors are getting ahead through corrupt acts and that regulatory officials will impose predatory sanctions if not paid off may make a business strategy of keeping one’s hands clean seem counterproductive.
When you grow up in a culture where you hear that to get things done on time “you have to grease the wheels a little bit” it becomes, embedded in your subconscious that corruptive measures are the one way one gains competitive advantage in the business of life.
In countries like Lesotho such practices have become so ingrained as part of the social fabric that guilty parties hardly recognise the illegality of their acts because corruption has become a “normal part of business.”
Both the demand for and the supply of corrupt services may be greater in less developed societies. Social mores regarding corruption are often thought to vary with the level of economic development.
Corruption is seen more and more not as a characteristic of underdeveloped societies, but rather as a consequence of rapid modernisation.
It can be said that abuses of public office for private gain become prevalent as new sources of wealth and power seek influence in the political sphere at a time when the regulatory authority of the state is expanding and social norms are in flux.
In a country such as Lesotho, being a former British protectorate, inherited socio-economic practices stemming from both our ancestors and the colonial masters have meant that in some ways the people may have conflicting psychological postures in how they see themselves (this being the case for all of Africa) and conduct themselves in the business of life. This state of psychological conflict allows for corrupt practices to flourish.
In a quite simplistic manner it can be said that the greater the share of GDP redistributed by government, the greater the spoils for corrupt allocation.
Similarly, the more officials there are in public office, the more potential people that could be bribed.
A few weeks back I argued in this column that the size of government involvement in Lesotho’s economy is far too reaching and “crowds out” business.
In this regard the cost of a large bureaucracy is its proneness and vulnerability to corrupt elements.
Finally, some argue that whatever the nature of political institutions, it is eventually the policies adopted by those in power that determine the extent of corruption.
In economies with extensive state regulation, greater opportunities for venality exist.
This particular stance is very much similar to the above one on political institutions.
However this can furthermore be looked at from the aspects of free media and independence of the judiciary.
The general view in Lesotho has always been that the courts are not free from political influence and until the masses have complete confidence in the system through experience, perceptions will not magically disappear.
On casually quizzing friends, acquaintances and random folk for this post, as to whether they had been part of a corruptive exchange in some form or fashion at some point of their life all answered in the affirmative.
Exchanges went from anything like paying off police officials for traffic infringements to paying local government officials to ensure speedy receipt of passports or other services.
The cost of corruption is in the billions as funds that could have used in productive means for the public are diverted to private causes.
On the other hand the cost of perceived corruption is that the country becomes a less attractive destination for international investors and foregoes billions into foreign direct investment that would have been useful in helping the country in
attaining its developmental goals.
General perceptions of corruption will generally only begin to decrease if the private sector is allowed to flourish and become the dominant force in our economy.