Oct 23, 2012

Crime and… ?

We understand that, for a number of reasons, all kinds of corruption are to be fought. Corrupt practices in governments go against the democratic and republican principles of rule of law, neutrality of the state, equality in political participation, oversight of the public interests, responsible use of public money, and accountability. Hence, governments, citizens, multilateral organizations, and international NGOs must collaborate to develop efficient mechanisms to identify corrupt acts and to adequately punish the involved actors.

However, in practice the fight against corruption has proven to be much more complicated than that. Even more, if looked at carefully, the complete understanding of this phenomenon, not to speak of its combat, might become one of the most interesting intellectual challenges of contemporary political science. A few examples to illustrate this point:

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about an Indian public officer, Ashok Khemka, who has had 43 jobs in his 21 years of service in government. The reason for this was that whenever he suspected there was a case of corruption within his area of competence, he ordered his employees to investigate thoroughly. Many times the compilation of evidence was stopped “by instructions from the above” and a few weeks later, if not days, Mr. Khemka was working in another position or in another agency. His most recent removal was because he asked for an investigation on a possible case of corruption around land deals which involved the son-in-law of the influential politician Sonia Gandhi. (This makes the case of political obstacles to promptly prosecute corruption.)

Some years ago in a Latin American country the government decided that applicants to jobs positions in certain sensitive areas should pass poligraph tests. This would allow for investigation in more detail than in an ordinary face to face interview of the personality and attitudes of the candidates. A foreign company was hired to provide the initial tools for the tests, including the technological equipment, the battery of questions and the framework with which to analyze them. The yes/no questionnaire proved to be a potential problem; one of its items said something like: “Your mother is very sick and you do not have enough money to pay for the medicine. Would you steal it from the pharmacy?” The expected answer in the country from which the foreign company came was “no”: it is never acceptable to steal. If a candidate stole for the benefit of the family he was a potential corruption red light. However, the people who hired the firm disagreed. A lot of people could answer “yes”: if your own mother was sick and you did not do anything to help her, how could it be expected that you would care about national problems? (This is an example of cultural differences between acceptable and reprehensible behavior, which are the basic inputs to define corrupt acts.)

In a South East Asian country the President appointed his brother Minister of Finance. There were some negative reactions in the Western media as clearly that nomination, which was by itself an act of nepotism, paved the way for all sorts of corruption. However, inside that country there was not much brouhaha. The President said that he felt that other candidates for the job were corrupt; even more, in whom else, if not in his brother, who would never publicly humiliate him by being corrupt, could he deposit the necessary confidence to manage the government’s money? In general, the public agreed. (This talks about the eventual limits of the environment in which corrupt activities occur.)

Clearly, it is always a crime when a public servant steals public money or deviates it from its previously approved destination, or when additional fees are required from citizens demanding a public service. But after the mentioned examples it could be argued that the concept of corruption is not the same all around the world, and that it is a function of other cultural features. However, that would be similar to saying that democracy will just find root in societies that present a particular set of socioeconomic, demographic and religious characteristics. Then, what to do with its variety of national manifestations? It is necessary to prompt this kind of debate in order to better understand how contemporary complex societies work and, consequently, what are some deeply enrooted challenges to democracy.




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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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