I’ve heard people calling on the government to shut down some aid program if one dollar of corruption is found. On the other hand, four of the past seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison for corruption, and to my knowledge no one has demanded that Illinois schools be shut down or its highways closed.

– Bill and Melinda Gates, in their annual letter

The Gates’ note on corruption — and the resulting discussion — has finally motivated me to pull out this old draft and post it. I’ve been meaning to start a regular project here, and now’s as good a time to start it as any.

Basically, on a semi-regular basis I will collect and post examples of corruption happening in Western, “developed” countries. Here is Why:

I’m very interested in corruption (I mean, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it). I’ve become increasingly interested in the way we define and talk about this phenomenon. In the academic literature, the definition used is often one from a 1997 World Bank report, where corruption is defined as “The misuse of public office for private gain,” where that private gain is understood to be related to money. So most of the time we’re talking about bribery or embezzlement.

Notice though that this rather narrow definition is not what most people understand under corruption. The average person in the street will probably take a broader definition to be true, one that involves other misuses of office that perhaps occur more in the moral sphere than the economic one.

But even when it comes to money, the western countries that do so well in various international rankings of corruption aren’t as clean as those rankings — or their self-presentation — suggest. Let’s talk about the US. You can’t tell me that money doesn’t play a role in politics in a country where the candidates for president last time around raised over a billion dollars. Or Germany: did you know that in Germany, it’s perfectly legal to just hand a politician a sack full of money? It’s a gift after all. Until very recently, companies in France and Germany were able to tax deduct bribes they paid in foreign countries! Speaking of France: Ex-president Mitterrand was personally embroiled in a corruption scandal, after French politics had deteriorated to a point where”the frequency of corruption stories in France [had] caused a degree of scandal fatigue”

But when corruption occurs regularly in western countries (as it often does), they don’t get stuck with the same reputation that plagues developing countries. Part of this is because they have cleverly legalized and formalized many behaviours that people find dubious — hence the tangle of American campaign finance law (and the difficulty in reforming it) or the tax-deductible bribes of Western Europe. Another reason is straight-up racism: the west is defined as civilized, and developing countries have long been portrayed as incapable of running their own affairs (this language goes all the way back to the White Man’s burden).

This project is a modest consciousness-raising exercise to point out that corruption isn’t just an “African” issue, or a “Third World” issue. It matters because we need to both take it less seriously and more seriously. We need to take it less seriously in the sense that suspending aid over corruption is often a bad idea, and in the sense that many other things matter more, as Chris Blattman explains in his response to Gates. 

We can’t dismiss corruption — real harm is done to real people when graft occurs. We also  need to take it more seriously in the sense that we must realize that this is not a disease of developing countries. And we also need to consider what a commenter on Blattman’s blog pointed out:

If we think of corruption in the broader sense of subverting democracy and making holders of public office accountable to people other than the public they purport to represent, I think that not only is corruption a serious problem, but that aid bears a large part of the blame.

It this broad sense, it certainly matters a lot, in developed countries as much as in developing ones. It’s important to call that out. The sooner we can gain a realistic understanding of corruption, unobscured by tired stereotypes and ideas of western supremacy, the sooner we can deal with it appropriately — tackling it when it hurts society, and recognizing the moments when we can maybe let it slide.

Watch this space; Sunday we begin.

Addendum: please don’t read this as an endorsement of the school of thought which held that corruption was great because it increased efficiency etc. I think corruption matters a great deal (obviously), especially when it further disadvantages those who already have little. But I also agree with Gates that shutting down aid programs — or arguing against them — because some funds are diverted is misguided.