Key myths about corruption (Briefing Paper)

Corruption has been one of the major international concerns of the past decade. It is an issue that affects all countries, rich and poor, in different ways and to differing degrees. Exactly how corruption affects particular societies has, however, been the subject of some discussion in the literature. The major international institutions promoting governance reforms have, for example, persistently argued that corruption has a direct negative impact upon overall economic growth levels and can depress the climate for attracting international investment; although these are far from universally-held assumptions, even in the mainstream economics literature. Amidst heightened international concern for tackling the abject poverty which continues to affect such large sections of humanity (expressed most clearly in the evolution of the millennium development goals or MDGs), perhaps the most important concern that has been expressed about corruption is that it disproportionately affects the poor and marginalized, through excluding them from access to services or reducing the funds available for direct use in social programmes. Donor-country fears over corruption in the handling of development aid monies may also act to erode the political will necessary to ensure adequate international funding of the actions needed to meet MDG targets, whilst within Southern countries perceptions of widespread corruption within political life can act decisively to depress popular support for state reforms and/or open democratic political systems. Clearly, then, corruption – its extent, nature, dynamics, causation and how it might be tackled – is an issue of fundamental importance to those working in the field of international development. One of the things noticeable on a first exploration of the literature on corruption and development is the singular lack of attention that was devoted to the issue for most of the period since the second world war and, in turn, the sudden rediscovery of the issue towards the end of the 1980s and the explosion of international legislative initiatives, institutional formation and academic work that has occurred since then. Clearly, the end of the bipolar geopolitical world of the cold war and the onslaught of contemporary globalization appear to have presented considerable opportunities for international collaboration in placing the issue at the centre of the international stage. Nevertheless, those very same global processes also present Preliminary version – not for citation without the permission of the authors important challenges to the international community in dealing with the issue because of the difficulties involved in tracing international flows of capital, the increasing complexity of international criminal networks and non-criminal tax evasion networks and the complex and hazy lines between the private and public sectors. Since the early 1990s large amounts of public money have been spent on the development of new legislation at national and international levels, the creation of national anti-corruption programmes and the evolution of anticorruption departments within just about every major international development institution. The impact of such measures, however, has been, at best, partial. As such, whilst the international community should continue to do what it can to raise the international profile of corruption and how it might be better combatted, we argue that it is even more important that a more detailed independent assessment of the effectiveness of existing interventions is carried out. Our position is that the first steps towards such a review of international anticorruption initiatives must involve subjecting the ways in which the issue has been constructed in the mainstream development arenas to closer scrutiny. This workshop is intended to be a first step in this direction. As such, this paper is intended to generate debate about the meaning of corruption, its complexity, how it relates to particular areas of development policy intervention and the means whereby it might be combated (if indeed this is considered feasible or even desirable). Given this, what follows is (i) deliberately provocative, (ii) deliberately broad and (iii) deliberately polemical. We thought long and hard about how best to organize this session and in the end decided to organize it around the presentation of a series of key myths which we have identified as important amongst those involved in anticorruption activities and research. Some of these myths relate to the academic community, some to a kind of general common sense amongst development practitioners and some to those involved in the implementation of anti-corruption initiatives. Here, they are organized into four broad sections dealing with (a) basic definitions, (b) states and markets, (c) actors and anticorruption initiatives and (d) economic factors.

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