Foreign Policy Blogs

Success stories

Can corruption really be fought? That is, can you change a society from one whose everyday wheels are greased by bribes to one in which petty corruption is rare and shunned? Can you, say, turn Uzbekistan into Britain?

The textbook examples of such change are Singapore and Hong Kong. Both faced corruption as a commonplace offense in the not-too-distant past, and both have substantially wiped it out, moving to the top ranks of the Corruption Perceptions Index. But, the textbook always tells you, these are two very special cases: they have small, homogenous, and rich populations. These characteristics merit further examination.

First, consider the effects of size. Small countries can be easily controlled from the center, and because they require fewer layers of bureaucracy there are fewer middlemen to pay off. Thus, if someone in a position of power determines to fight corruption, enforcing the decision is a manageable proposition. Second, homogeneity. The more interests at play in a system, the more people who may not be served by a new policy, or who may choose to oppose it on political or other grounds. And finally, money. A government that cannot pay its employees a living wage will likely see them seeking alternative sources of income. Moreover, investigations and prosecutions require resources. It is not possible to fight corruption without proper funds.

It is likely true that most countries will not be able to emulate the rapid and seemingly irreversible progress of Singapore and Hong Kong. But while the latter truly are unique, what country isn’t? Every nation has its own set of challenges, its own reasons why now isn’t the right time. Rather than focus on the obstacles, consider the opportunities. Singapore and Hong Kong had the political will at the highest reaches of government to enforce an anti-corruption agenda that pervaded the system; any government with audacity and determination can match this. While their resources may have been more ample than most, the majority of governments can pay a living wage if they prioritize. And the blueprint for effective anti-corruption institutions and an efficient judiciary is readily available to any who seek it.

Other positive, if not as dramatic, examples exist as well. Rwanda, with a GDP in the world’s bottom quarter and a population whose heterogeneity is infamous, has seen visible change. Multinational businesses have reported that corruption is no longer a major constraint and effective anti-corruption institutions have been put in place. Rwanda has not eliminated petty corruption in particular, but on a troubled continent every brightening star is a beacon. Georgia is richer, but it faces entrenched interests that are both local and foreign, and yet it has made significant progress as well, with notable improvements specifically in reducing bribery among police, tax, and customs officials. Such a change in petty corruption is distinctive and has a real impact on ordinary people’s lives.

The elephant in the room is political system. Singapore may be clean, but it is also an undemocratic state. Hong Kong’s status is more complicated, but it is clear that the anti-corruption drive of the 1970s occurred concomitantly with a degree of political repression. The will of the Rwandan government can be imposed so effectively because unwanted opposition is regularly silenced there. And the uncompromising anti-corruption techniques used in Georgia were widely criticized for their authoritarian tendencies. While there is no correlation between dictatorship and anti-corruption, this is because so many dictatorships are corrupt; it unfortunately has not been proven that democracies are more effective at combating corruption. The promise of corruption-fighting democracies such as Ghana and Liberia is thus all the more significant.



FPB Contributor

Great Decisions Discussion group