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     Volume 4 Issue 41 | April 8, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

A Question of Degree or Definition?

Farah Ghuznavi

"Anti-corruption" has become a major buzzword in recent years, particularly in the development discourse. Rightly so, given that corruption so profoundly hampers development and good governance. Yet despite the multi-faceted definition to be found in the dictionary, general corruption is viewed (and defined), largely in financial terms. Furthermore, such concerns are invariably raised in the context of developing countries.

Given that donor governments (and their taxpayers) provide development aid in the expectation that this will improve the situation of developing world populations, it is not altogether unreasonable to expect accountability, and a degree of transparency, in the management of such aid. It is also undeniably true that an unacceptably large proportion of development aid is misused by governments and powerful individuals in some recipient countries.

An illustration of the effects of bad governance is provided by King Mswati of Swaziland. While over 40 percent of adults in the country are HIV-positive, and the majority of people live below the poverty line, the King - who has been described as the last absolute monarch in Africa - is known for his opulent lifestyle, his priceless collection of motorcars and an ever-expanding collection of wives (acquired by methods that include abduction).

Nevertheless, I find it somewhat disturbing that the justified focus on corruption in the developing world is not matched by an equally rigorous focus on corruption within many of the countries that are so quick to point the finger at "corrupt Third World elites". After all, the financial fiascos of corporations such as Enron and WorldCom were not engineered by developing country elites, but by a combination of "first world elites" - the result of unholy alliances between greedy corporate barons and their political pals, as well as ineptitude and/or corruption amongst regulatory authorities. And the scale of such corruption dwarfs anything taking place in the developing world!

Similarly, and less sensationally, the arms and equipment deals taking place between developing country governments and their western suppliers can often involve corruption and kickbacks which benefit both sides. But while we occasionally hear about the purchase of sub-standard equipment or out-of-date medicines, and the finger is justly pointed to the relevant authorities/ individuals in developing countries, we hear little about those at the other end, who have richly benefited from providing the faulty merchandise. After all, it takes two to tango!

So, is corruption just a matter of degree? Is the main question really one of who commits the largest, or the most sensational, fraud? Perhaps it is more useful to consider the idea of corruption in a broader sense, in order to appreciate the limits of such finance-based definitions. There is a far more profound corruption of ethics - and for want of a better term, morality - going on in the world today. It can be seen in many aspects of our lives, not least in the way that the powerful treat the powerless. It is evident in the dealings between states at the global level, as well as the interactions taking place between individuals, at a far more mundane level.

One aspect of this is the ongoing explosion of activity in arms trading. With millions being made through legal arms sales, it is worth questioning how such a grossly immoral business has gained such widespread acceptance (or is viewed, at least, with resignation). The developing world currently spends £22 billion a year on arms. Half of that amount would be sufficient to eradicate illiteracy in those countries! How can that be anything but morally corrupt, in terms of the choices that these governments are making for their people? Globally, one person is killed every minute by a gun. Furthermore, many of the biggest buyers in the arms market are also regimes widely accused of human rights abuses. And yet, this trade has permeated the very culture of many developing countries. In countries like Somalia, children are often named after guns, e.g., AK or Uzi!

And who are these countries buying their weapons from? The five largest arms sellers in the world are the five members of the Security Council, with the US and the UK heading the list! Many activists in the Western world question how their own governments can justify these arms sales to questionable regimes. While the British government's recent moves to tighten international controls over arms dealings are welcome, ultimately how much of this is simply damage limitation, given the level of human misery created by this business?

Moving on to wider issues of corruption in governance, most have heard of Lord Acton's maxim that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". He is less known for his equally accurate observation that, "There is no greater heresy than this, that the holding of office sanctifies the holder". From east to west, those in power would do well to bear in mind this warning. Power corrupts not only in terms of financial mismanagement or misuse of authority. Unless guarded against, it can distort fundamental principles, and lead to the abandonment of cherished beliefs. And perhaps most dangerously, it can create delusions of grandeur.

Today's global scenario demonstrates the validity of Lord Acton's maxims. In a uni-polar world, there is only one voice that matters, and we all know whose voice this is. Given how desperately individuals and governments struggled to prevent the Iraq War, it is instructive that in the final analysis the issue literally came down to "might is right". If that were not to be the case, it would be hard to reconcile how Israel (which continuously violates any number of United Nations resolutions) largely operates with impunity, when Iraq could be attacked on a pre-emptive basis, in violation of all principles of international law, for having mythical weapons of mass destruction.

The fact remains that the US aside, the majority of "partners" in the so-called coalition of the willing (UK, Spain, Italy) have faced considerable resistance to the war from their own, unwilling populations. Despite this, democratically elected governments have chosen to ignore majority opinion in their own countries. Those leaders might do well to re-visit Lord Acton's warning about the holding of office failing to sanctify the holder (or to validate their flawed decisions!). The last Spanish government paid for its mistakes (not least in underestimating the intelligence of its people) by being removed from office, and millions of people all over Europe (and the rest of the world) have repeatedly demonstrated on the streets over their opposition to the Iraq war.

The dictionary definition of "corrupt" includes the following phrase: "to change something so that it is no longer in its original state". Does this contempt for the will of the people not in fact challenge, and ultimately corrupt, the original meaning of democracy? Concerns over voter disillusionment, apathy and alienation in Europe are surely understandable in the context of these events.

In a wider sense, maybe corruption should be seen as the gradual deterioration of hard-won freedoms, when values and beliefs are sacrificed in the name of political expediency. Perhaps democracy and freedom really die with a whimper, rather than a bang, and recognising corruption in its multiple (and sometimes insidious) manifestations, is something that should concern us all.


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