Corruption: an overemphasized and misunderstood ‘Anglo-American Fetish’?

Corruption: an overemphasized and misunderstood ‘Anglo-American Fetish’?

12.12.2012. Common sense tells us that corruption is bad. In the development field corruption is common rhetoric for much of Africa’s problems: inefficient aid distribution, powerful elites, and obscure government structures. Even so, Chris Blattman* leads an alternative discussion arguing that corruption is overemphasized, and even possibly beneficial to some societies.


Blattman argues that even though corruption “sands the wheels of growth” the negative effect it has barely outweighs the positive effects, such as bribes acting as subsidies for governments lacking a tax base. Furthermore, corruption could (or should) be framed as a symptom rather than a cause of poverty.


Similarly, Enrico Colombatto has pointed out that in “many circumstances corruption is in fact a rational and understandable reaction to institutional failures”. Therefore reform of government policies and institutions must occur if corruption can be tackled. However, Colombatto also notes corruption isn’t simply ‘morally’ wrong. For example, corruption can even be considered as a ‘desirable instrument to curb decision-making power or to reduce social tensions’. In sum, both Blattman and Colombatto remind policy and development practitioners in both the developed and developing world that to tackle corruption its multifaceted nature must be understood.


Conversely, how do said practitioners experience corruption? Perhaps corruption is more of a nagging pain in the side of developed nations, and aid organizations than Africa itself. For example, does corruption exist in ‘African’ discourse, or is it an ‘Anglo-American’ fetish? This is to say, who is served by the rhetorical ‘corruption in Africa’ argument? Corruption exists allover the world, albeit more so in poorer countries. It isn’t, however, a black and white distinction.


For major aid donors and governments, corruption casts a shadow over the gifting of taxpayers’ dollars to developing nations. It’s easy to understand that citizens and leaders alike don’t want to see their money ‘wasted’ due to corruption in developing nations.


Scholars Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews** make the convincing argument that improvement in the quality of governance, which includes corruption levels, takes 15 to 35 years optimally. This means that policies directed at Africa can’t expect results within 3 to 5 years. Not only will it take time to shift the pervasiveness of corruption but also donors mustn’t pull aid dollars prematurely.


Given these alternative arguments corruption doesn’t appear to be unitarily bad. Not only can corruption serve a functional purpose; it may also be overemphasized both as a problem for development and in Western mindset.


*Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

**In their article “Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure”





Alex McPhedran