In 2014, while on a tour of Latin American countries, Pope Francis was reported to have said: “corruption is the moth, the gangrene of a people.” The corrupt deserve to be “tied to a rock and cast into the sea.”
Indeed, corruption is bad, and tackling it is a good thing to do. But that won’t necessarily make a country or society more prosperous.
Here in Nigeria, it is common to hear people say the country is poor because those who have held public office or presently are at the helm of affairs are corrupt. And, unless citizens ensure that public resources are not stolen and that public power is not used for private gain, the country will remain poor, right?
It certainly is enticing to believe so. Here, after all, is a narrative that neatly aligns the promise of prosperity with the struggle against poverty, squalor, inequality, and injustice in Nigeria.
For example, the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Indicator, which has been published since 1996 for over 180 countries shows that while rich countries tend to be less corrupt than poor ones, countries that are relatively less corrupt, for their level of development, such as Ghana, Costa Rica, or Denmark, do not grow any faster than others.
Similarly, countries that have had significant improvement in their CCI scores, such as Zambia, Macedonia, Uruguay, or New Zealand, didn’t really grow faster. By contrast, the World Bank’s Government Effectiveness Indicator suggests that countries that, given their income level, have relatively effective governments or improve their performance, do tend to grow faster.
For some reason, our moral sentiments are strongly related to feelings of empathy in the face of injustice and unfairness. Meaning that it is easier for citizens to mobilize against injustice than for justice. Nigerians are more enthusiastic to fight the bad than to fight for, say, the kind of growth and development that makes education and healthcare available, accessible and affordable; and food and sustainable livelihoods plentiful.
Sometimes switching from the “bad” to the corresponding “good” is simply a matter of semantics: to fight against ethnicity and tribalism is to fight for non-discrimination. But, in the case of corruption, which is bad that is caused by the absence of a good, attacking the bad is very different from creating the good.
The good is a capable state: a bureaucracy that can protect Nigeria and its citizens, keep the peace, enforce rules and contracts, provide infrastructure and social services, regulate economic activity, credibly enter into inter-temporal obligations, and tax society to pay for it all. It is the absence of a capable state that causes corruption (the inability to prevent public officials, often in collusion with other members of society, from subverting decision-making for private gain), as well as underdevelopment.
Some might argue that reducing corruption entails the creation of a capable state; the good is created out of the fight against the bad. But is it? Curtailing side payments does not imply the ability to collect taxes. Policemen may stop asking for bribes, but that will not make them any better at catching criminals and preventing crime. Doctors, nurses, or teachers often do not show up for work, but that does not mean that their performance would improve much if they did.
Aside from prosecuting some bad elements in our society, measures to fight corruption typically involve reforming procurement rules, public financial management systems, and anti-corruption legislation. The underlying assumption is that the new rules, unlike the previous rules, will be enforced.
That has not been Nigeria’s experience. In 2003, under pressure from the aid community, the Federal Government of Nigeria embarked on aggressive public service reforms and even enacted what was billed at the time as one the best anti-corruption legislation in the world – which led to the establishment of ICPC, NFIU, and EFCC – and yet the country’s corruption ranking hasn’t fared any better.
Matt Andrews, a Professor of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School has documented the failure of public service reforms designed to prevent graft. And the reasons for these failures are not specific to public financial management practices – treasury single accounts, public procurement, open budgeting, etc.
All government organizations need to be perceived as legitimate. They can create this perception by actually performing the function for which they were created, which is difficult. Alternatively, they can borrow from the natural world a strategy called isomorphic mimicry: just as non-poisonous snakes evolve to resemble a poisonous species, organizations can make themselves look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate.
And this is what Nigeria’s anti-corruption agenda often ends up stimulating: the creation of organizations that are more obsessed with abiding by the new and burdensome processes than they are with achieving their stated goals. As the trio of Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews will argue, when inept organizations adopt “best practices”, they become too distracted by decision-distorting protocols to do what they were established to do.
Francis Fukuyama on his own part pointed out, that the development of a capable state that is accountable and ruled by law is one of the crowning achievements of human civilization. It involves the creation of what Benedict Anderson refers to as an imagined community.
This is not an easy task when the Nigerian state is deeply divided along tribal, ethnic, or religious lines. After all, who is the state for? All Northern Nigerians or just the Hausas among them? All Yorubas or just the Christians or Traditionalists among them? What is to prevent the ethnic or religious group currently in power from diverting resources to itself on the argument that “it’s our turn to eat?” Why shouldn’t those currently in control of the state transform it into their patrimony?
So, as we all mobilize to fight against corruption because we want to do away with evil and injustice, we must or should remember that casting the bad into the sea does not imply the sudden appearance on our shores of the good that we need. To develop we need an effective and capable government. A government that can deliver results.