Foreign Policy Blogs

Will Corruption Undermine Democracy?

Can democracy survive 21st century capitalism?

In October, the courts of France dismissed a suit by Transparency International (and other plaintiffs) that sought to investigate how three African dictators in Francophone Africa came to possess hundreds of millions of dollars even though the people of  their countries were amongst the poorest in the world. The Africans were dictators, but France is a democracy.

In Namibia, an extremely poor but technically democratic African country, the Chinese government has offered scholarships to the children of the best connected families according to The New York Times. This is nothing new for China, of course, where kind touches and nice gifts — of roads and other infrastructure and no one knows what else — is part of the package to secure access to various natural resources. Undermining fairness may not bother the non-democratic Chinese, but it has infuriated many locals in the source countries. It ruins the equation that elections mean democracy means fairness.

The United States has the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits (in theory) bribery in order to secure foreign business. But early this year, Halliburton paid more than a half a billion fine for bribing Nigerian officials (to the tune of $180 million) for $6 billion worth of business. Officials and family members of officials, all with suspiciously large bank accounts and holdings, are regularly allowed into the US (especially, according to numerous reports, if their countries have oil).

Although corruption is so visible and so common in oil countries, it is scarcely limited to them. Afghanistan, which has limited natural resources, deals with corruption on all levels, a (probably) stolen election, a US-backed President who seems to uninterested in stopping it. A viable economy is thwarted by the current illegal one.

To me, Afghanistan shows most clearly the potential costs to democracy without equally enforceable laws. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested tying aid to anti-corruption efforts, but that has rarely worked elsewhere. What will we do instead? Democracy relies on coalitions (although this is rarely emphasized in American politics these days either),but not necessarily a corrupt one. Building a working coalition in Afghanistan has meant deals with corrupt warlords, tribal leaders and drug lords. This behavior is the only thing that can validate the Taliban.

Historically, when we have promoted democracy around the world, we have linked the system with improved freedom and greater opportunity, especially economic opportunity. After all that is our legacy, if not exactly our own 19th century history. Now much of the rest of the world has elections: Nigeria has a civilian government — and is it beyond corruption? Kenya? Zimbabwe? Pakistan? Russia? Iran? People become disgusted with democracy when they connect it to democracy.

Democracy without honesty, without accountability, gives the best system in the world a bad name and bad image, with dangerous consequences. Unless America and the West can find a way to control the corruption that seems to follow the beginning of democracy, it will undermine the validity of the concept by association. Will people ultimately pull away, give up in the name of another organizing principle? Communism was once seen as a viable alternative to capitalist but democratic Western countries. Today, this is the attraction to other, antiquated, approaches, like sharia.

As we have seen in Guinea, Gabon and other places, the end of one dictator often means elections that are farces and a new old dictator comes to power. The “election” of Bongo’s son in Gabon this summer brought furious local protests blaming France. France, once an ocean-worthy power, now seeks to retain its glory in a duck pond, as protector of some of the worst dictators in its former colonies.

All countries endure some corruption — it becomes unendurable when wealth is limited to those in positions of power, however petty. Allowing corruption to become associated with democracy or the West (especially the US) will undermine the best hope for us all.



Jodi Liss

Jodi Liss is a former consultant for the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF. She has worked on the “Lessons From Rwanda” outreach project and the Post-Conflict Economic Recovery report. She has written about natural resources for the World Policy Institute's blog and for Punch (Nigeria).