09 Dec 2014

Anti-corruption as last chapter of democratic revolutions

by: Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was a 27 years old Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest at the confiscation of his wares following an accusation by officials that he was trading illegally. That started the fires of the Tunisian Revolution and then the wider Arab Spring, and he was instantly cast as a hero – after all, then-President Zine El Abidine Ben was a typical predatory leader with a wife who had built herself an unauthorized villa at the UNESCO heritage site of Carthage. But the hero of the Tunisian revolution was in fact avoiding paying tax, like most petty traders in poor countries all around the world. He saw himself as acting legitimately in doing so because the state had done so little for him and his family in his life, while President Ben Ali and his wife prospered. The state could have argued in return that since people like Mr Bouazizi had never paid taxes there were insufficient public resources to offer them much. It might turn out that the money spent on Mrs Ben Ali’s villa and other spoils was insufficient to provide for all those in need of education and health care but who were not paying taxes. In other words, beyond the paradigm of predator and victim, what seems to be the problem in the Tunisian situation is the absence of an agreed social contract between them to avoid both corruption and evasion. Only such a contract would give development a chance.

Photo credit: Antoine Walter (Flickr)

Crowds in the streets of New Delhi, Sofia and Rio have only recently raised corruption as one of the main banners of their protests.  It is not difficult to see why. Most of the 114,000 respondents in 107 countries interviewed for the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer believe that corruption has increased, not decreased in the previous year, two out of three consider that favouritism is the rule rather than the exception in their public services (only a quarter having resorted to bribes in the year previous to survey), over 50% believe their government is captured by vested interests and for every nine people who consider national anti-corruption strategies ineffective we find one who believes they are working.

The reasons why people complain of corruption become obvious when we survey the countries where such perceptions are dominant. New research from the EU FP7 ANTICORRP project shows that corruption comes with a score of malign phenomena which hinder development and well-being. High perception of corruption is significantly associated with low public expenditure on health (the queues outside Brazilian hospitals), but high expenditure on various government projects – from Brazil’s expensive World Cup to Mr. Ben Ali’s grandiose empty mega-mosque – along with reduced absorption of assistance funds, low tax collection, poor returns from public investment and brain drain. In 2013 only citizens in Northern European countries agreed that for the most part advancement in the public or private sector is based on hard work and competence, while for the rest of Europeans favouritism through connections, the most insidious and widespread form of corruption, seems to be the ticket to success in their societies.

Why are elections not taking care of that and in new democracies we continue to have the same problem, which we can document with evidence ranging from the poor rate of tax collection to the fact that the number one source of wealth continues to be power and authority? Why does control of corruption work in most old democracies (though not in all) and in so few new ones (over eighty countries which hold regular free elections are systematically corrupt)? Because for a society to prevent those with power to allocate public resources to their benefit elections seem not to be sufficient- they alone cannot guarantee that whoever gets elected rules by the law and the state treats everyone equally and fairly. In many new democracies political parties are structured as “spoiling machines” of public resources, a historically more evolved organizing vehicle for group benefit after family, clan or tribe, who have learned to coexist fairly well with apparently modern organizations by informally draining them of their impersonal and objective character. The most widespread example is the politicization of the public service in corrupt countries (including hospitals and schools, where jobs are seen as party spoils).

Over 160 countries in the world ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption pledging to evolve to modernity. But seeing that corruption at a systemic scale is simply an abuse of power, anti-corruption is necessarily a political act.  The few countries which succeeded to build control of corruption over the last forty years – countries like Uruguay or Estonia – did not do it through anti-corruption agencies or other silver bullets promoted by the international community, but because a critical mass managed to balance power and elect people who ended the old vicious circle and initiated new rules of the game. For our generation the elimination of privilege and favouritism is the only way to accomplish in full the democratic revolutions started in 1989. Integrity is a public good, and this is why its construction is fraught with collective action problems and translates in this new wave of global discontent – it’s only discontent with the outcome of imperfect democracies and not with democracy itself.

The results of the ANTICORRP project cited here are published in Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (editor) Anticorruption Report 1 (Controlling Corruption in Europe) and Anticorruption Report 2 (The Anticorruption Frontline) which came out from Barbara Budrich publishers in 2013 and 2014.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi chairs the European Centre for Anticorruption and State Building (ERCAS) at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.