Is corruption always bad?

Corruption is defined as the “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” by Transparency International and is charged with various ills afflicting any one nation. The presence of corruption means that public resources are being used for private benefit, undermining the state’s ability to pursue gains for the greater population and has been described as an obstacle to the process of democratisation, as slowing down economic growth, increasing socio-economic inequalities, creating disrespect towards governing institutions and fostering a culture of non-compliance with laws and regulations.

With so many charges at its door, corruption seems like the ultimate evil, preventing good governance, democratisation and economic welfare of nations. However, to treat corruptions as the sole cause of problems with statehood would be a mistake. Indeed, some academics are now challenging the treatment of corruption as something bad altogether.

Developing countries face many problems other than corruption. These include lack of experience in writing good laws and developing achievable policies with clear objectives and coherent strategies. Many suffer from a lack of trained and experienced workers to staff the civil service, the regulatory agencies and the judiciary to provide that compliance, monitoring and the rule of law. Some are wrought with conflict between key elites, which hold the power to stimulate economic growth and social development. And a few states have had little or no experience of statehood whatsoever for much too long to be able to do a good job, like those nations that emerge through independence from a larger state.

These are contexts that also often suffer the most from corruption but to assume a linear, unidirectional relationship between corruption and the other problems listed above would be wrong. This is because one does not necessarily lead to the other and the relationship may exist both ways, or indeed be circular.

For example, existence of even widespread corruption, does not necessarily indicate that the state has weak regulatory/monitoring capacity, or that its legal institutions are inadequate. The number of court cases initiated by members of public against state officials on charges of corruption has increased in countries like Russia, for instance. And these are not just a formality with no practical retribution. These court cases are being won against the state 70-80% of the time, and prompt (and significantly large) compensation is indeed being paid to the victims. So, despite the fact that the number of overall cases (those won and lost) is increasing, it would be wrong to say that formal institutions are inadequate at monitoring or punishing corruption.

This brings us to the second point – corruption can buy loyalty and support, necessary for large-scale reforms, which would not happen otherwise. In particularly rigid and hierarchical systems or sectors corruption can consolidate the interests of opposing elites and act as the grease in the wheels to facilitate important socio-political and economic change. In this sense, corruption can actually aid the development of high state capacity by giving the state a way to fulfil its functions – such as providing physical infrastructure, monitoring the private sector and ensuring political stability.

All that is good, but corruption breeds corruptions. The reforms that take place with the help of corruption end up benefiting someone or other (and usually not the broader public). Otherwise, there wouldn’t be support for them, right? So even though we go through with reforms and have a level of stability within a country, the new system just becomes more and more laced with corruption. Well, even here we now find critics. It would seem that even corruption has a tipping point, and when it gets too much it rallies people to complain, rise up and change the regime. Some critics claim this is what took place in Ukraine earlier this year.

Lastly, a bit on definitions. Corruption doesn’t have to be bad is we don’t call it ‘corruption’. Let’s take elections as an example and talk about ‘lobbying’ and ‘campaign donations’. In 2010 an amendment to the US election law was made, which removed limits on election campaign spending by corporations and unions. In 2014 this was followed up by removing limits on individual donations. Many critics voiced serious concern for the effect these amendments would have on democracy, since the changes effectively allowed for political support to be bought. Speaking with your rouble in Russia (or any other currency anywhere else in the developing world) is a definite no no – it is perceived as corrupt and undemocratic. But when making his decision to vote in favour of the changes to the US law, Justice Roberts of the USA Supreme Court was convinced that speaking with your dollar has become a part of free speech and is completely democratic. With a majority of 5-4 the amendments were passed on both counts and provided food for thought for Corruption Studies.

Elena Gorianova