Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).
Corruption, in its success or failure, has a worldwide attraction but its intensity, the measure of the damage caused to societies both rich and poor is subject to much debate and comparison. This and several other thoughts come from a recent essay in the Times Literary Supplement (London, UK) where the author, Paul Collier, remarks that: “Go back one generation and corruption attracted little global attention. Corruption in rich societies was dismissed as a phenomenon of the past, corruption in poor societies was brushed over.” Such a sweeping statement clearly divides the world into those of us who are very corrupt, and others, the better, not so much.
That is a markedly Eurocentric view of society at large and would appear not to take into sufficient account the very established habit of taking bribes, perhaps the simplest start to a career in corruption. “In the rich societies the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] has orchestrated new anti-corruption legislation, for example, making bribery of the officials of foreign governments a criminal offence. If this seems [obvious], in France such bribes were previously a taxdeductible business expense.”
Yes, but in spite of that apportioning and near defence of Western Europe as special and different, corruption was always there, everywhere. And stretching the thought a bit further back in history, it was the Venerable Bede (673-735) who reported in his writings on the history of England that corruption in Rome was such that it would eventually go on to infect all levels of the empire. Born in Italy, the Venerable Bede was an English monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles. He is known as an author, translator and scholar, and his most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gained him the title “The Father of English History.” Bede’s accusation pointing to the beginning of modern Europe was always of some comfort: Rome was responsible in many ways for all the damage in history as from 1453, when the last remnants of the empire fell.
Now, in life after Bede, Europe is trying to come to terms with what happened so far back in history. For a start, the five books reviewed in the TLS by Paul Collier help to mark the way the world ran from that diffuse but nevertheless clear start in Rome, into the morass that are twisted politics now.
The books – Unmasked, Corruption in the West by Lawrence Cockcroft & Anne- Christine Wegener (I.B. Tauris); The Corruption Cure. How citizens and leaders can combat graft. by Robert J. Rotberg (Princeton University); Corruption. A short history by Carlo Alberto Brioschi (Brookings Inst.); Insatiable. The rise and rise of the greedocracy by Stuart Sim (Reaktion); and Making Sense of Corruption by Bo Rothstein & Aiysha Varraich (Cambridge U.) – appear to look just a little naïve in their ambitious world sweep when you think of our recent experiences here in distant Buenos Aires. There are no apparent Sr. López’s who threw bags full of dollars, up to about nine million of them, over a convent wall for safekeeping and the connivance of the nuns there resident. And there is no reference, in Paul Collier’s essay, to anything vaguely resembling our levels of theft of supplies that include railways, cheap rolling-stock that did not appear to be of any use at all, empty hotels that invoice exorbitant rates quite badly and disguise cash-laundering exercises by people with well-oiled links to government and so much more besides.
We don’t get a mention in Collier’s article, perhaps because the sums involved are hard to believe. However, the article’s author assures us that “corruption scandals have become big politics.” And in support of this Brazil’s Odebrecht’s scandal, presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer get a passing mention, the second for being toppled from government. Perhaps the actions of the gigantic contract company Odebrecht and such like can be sidestepped because the vastness of their dealings are probably impossible to explain or comprehend. Several African countries are in the higher levels of corruption. Collier does provide a sweeping description of the workings of several presidents and countries, including South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma or the desperate attempts in China by President Xi Jinping to curb corruption in sharp contrast with fast growth. And there is India’s President Narendra Modi, trying to find new ways to stop ancient and entrenched customs.
Credit too is generously awarded to Transparency International which, “by measuring and publicising corruption, has had an impact quite astounding relative to its tiny budget.”
Corruption is embarrassing in all countries and societies where it is obvious and hence, very often, while discussing the international levels of evil often there is refusal of suspicions or accusations within the environment. “At the heart of why corruption [probably meaning in the UK] is rare in our own society is something more than because honesty is ‘the standard operating procedure’; it is because we all share with author Stuart Sim a sense that it is morally wrong. If we behaved corruptly, most of us would be plagued by a sense of guilt.” That seems to be a rather high opinion of a section of certain countries.
It may well be that some societies behave better than others because the bulk of legislation tends to discourage escapades into big-time corruption. But invoking moral superiority over the rats in Third or Fourth world countries tends to teach little and even may encourage crooked action in places where official monitoring and investigative mechanisms are badly equipped or simply feeble to deal with big-time corruption. The authorities there might think countries are less corrupt in Europe, but does that thought really make them any better?
“In the end, breaking corruption is about creating common new perceptions of obligation. But foreign preaching is not the way to do it,” the author writes, and it was about time somebody said that.