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Corruption ruins lives!

In the past two decades, a general consensus has emerged condemning corruption as one of the most damaging factors for development. Corruption is seen to undermine the cohesion and strength of whole societies, threaten precarious economic and social progress made in developing countries, and increase the vulnerability of lives and livelihoods of the poor. What is new is not only the wave of concern but that the condemnation of corruption transcends all boundaries and sectors. The battle cry to ‘combat corruption’ is sounded by allies as well as formerly bitterly opposed combatants, from NGO activists and grassroots movements to CEOs of multinational enterprises and heads of government, from powerful high-income OECD countries to conflict and poverty-ridden Southern countries.

This is all the more surprising as for the greater part of the post-war period corruption was generally seen to be an a priori neutral symptom of changing societies, a kind of ‘growing pain’ of industrializing economies. Although there was the odd moral tremor denouncing the vicious and retarding effects of corruption, until the late eighties most forms of corruption in the developing world were generally accepted as inevitable if not in all cases desirable side-effects of modernization. Corruption, “a welcome lubricant easing the path to modernization” was seen to serve specific functions, both economically and socially. Conceptualizing corruption as a lubricant smoothing political transition, supportive of economic growth, and as a facilitator in overcoming obstructive civics in world countries fitted very neatly into the export-driven agenda of international trade and industry. “Corruption reduces uncertainty and increases investment”.

A particularly telling example is the bribing of foreign public officials by international business companies: until the late nineties, it was not only perfectly acceptable for Northern enterprises to give bribes, it was also perfectly normal to expect foreign (Southern) officials to take bribes. In other words, corruption was a generally accepted, legal, and even tax-deductable standard practice in many OECD countries—business as usual.

In the meantime, however, attitudes towards corruption have changed dramatically. Since the end of the Cold War, we have been witnessing a radical change of tide: whereas before the prevailing understanding of corruption was to view it as a relatively harmless phenomenon, since the late eighties and early nineties it is viewed as the exact opposite: a serious threat undermining democracy, growth, and equity. One indicator of this renewed interest in corruption is the wave of academic literature discussing corruption in relation to economic growth, political development, and social cohesion. Given the “eerie silence” that prevailed before, a “corruption eruption” took place in the nineties. With new theories and empirical case studies on corruption flourishing and cross-fertilizing each other, the past three decades have greatly increased our understanding of different forms, causes, and effects of corruption. Typologies of corruption have been refined, transcended, and regrouped; new theories on the political economy of corruption have been coined; and previously un- or underexplored fields, such as corruption in the private sector (‘private-to-private corruption’) or popular perspectives on corruption, have been mapped out.

Even more spectacularly, however, the spring tide of concern has swelled and washed ashore a dazzling multitude of initiatives, declarations, and conventions in all four corners of the earth. Since 1997, at least nine conventions on corruption have been adopted, spanning global, regional, and topical issues of corruption. In all conventions, its serious repercussions on development, growth, and stability are emphasized. Consider for instance the African Union, whose members are: “Concerned about the negative effects of corruption and impunity on the political, economic, social and cultural stability of the African States and its devastating effects on the economic and social development of the African peoples”. Or, indeed, the opening paragraph of the preamble of the OECD Convention on the Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions: “Considering that bribery is a widespread phenomenon in international business transactions, including trade and investment, which raises serious moral and political concerns, undermines good governance and economic development, and distorts international competitive conditions”, and subsequently proceeds to criminalize the bribery of foreign public officials.

Up to the early nineties, Northern countries generally understood corruption to be a problem of greedy, poor, and ineffective Southern administrations. Southern countries, on the other hand, denounced it as a problem of the corrupting influence of big (Northern) business. However, today the consensus across continents and sectors is that “[p]oor governance and corruption undermine efforts in the South to fight poverty, to improve access to basic services, to establish responsible government and to improve the quality of life for all.”

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