Posted tagged ‘corruption’

Addressing corruption

January 20, 2010

Once a year Transparency International, an international organisation assessing the state of corruption across the world, produces its Corruption Perceptions Index. This assesses and measures the degree of ‘public sector corruption’ in 180 or so countries. The results of this can be seen on a map produced by the organisation, and this shows one thing immediately: there is a significant link between corruption and poverty, so that poor countries do not just suffer deprivation, disease and starvation, but also exploitation by those who rule them. But the map also makes clear that the relative absence of corruption is quite heavily localised, and whether we find this easy to believe or not, here in Ireland we are in a country that has comparatively low levels of corruption, and moreover one that has improved its record fairly consistently over the past ten years or so.

It may be worth saying this, because if you read some comments in the media (such as this piece in the Irish Independent by Kevin Myers) you might be forgiven for thinking that corruption pervades everything in Ireland. This is not so. Ireland ranks as the 14th least corrupt country in the world, better than (for example) the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium and France; equal in standing to Germany; but not as good as Luxembourg, most Scandinavian countries, Singapore and New Zealand (which is the least corrupt country). For the record, the most corrupt country is Somalia, which in turn is only just ahead of Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan.

But back to Ireland. For 2009, Transparency International summarises the position here as follows:

‘Ireland has made substantial progress in strengthening legal and institutional safeguards against corruption over the past fifteen years. In addition, the scale of ‘petty corruption’ is perceived to be amongst the lowest measured anywhere in the world. In spite of a number of revelations of political ‘grand corruption’ during the 1980s and 1990s, there is little evidence that this type of corruption currently poses a major threat to the integrity of the State.’

There is an important point in this. Those who promote the ‘Ireland-is-systematically-corrupt’ thesis with such energy probably do more than most to impede the fight against the corruption that we do have, because they over-egg the pudding and prevent a proper focus on what matters. We do need to combat all forms of corruption, but we need to do it from an objective perspective on what it is that constitutes the main problems here.

In fact, Transparency International does highlight some issues in Ireland. Some of this is described in the country report as ‘legal corruption’ explained as follows:

‘While no laws may be broken, personal relationships, patronage, political favours, and political donations are believed to influence political decisions and policy to a considerable degree. The situation is compounded by a lack of transparency in political funding and lobbying.’

More specific weaknesses in our national framework are also identified, including political weaknesses (with the Oireachtas too heavily influenced by the government, and with lack of transparency in political funding), inadequate audit checks in local government,  inadequate protection for whistleblowers in the public and private sectors, inadequate procurement safeguards, and so forth.

Corruption raises both ethical and practical issues. A corrupt system is morally unacceptable, but it also compromises business and trade and hinders economic and social development. The third world cleptocrats who have ruined some countries did not just steal their citizens’ resources, they also undermined the capacity of these countries to escape from poverty through trade.

National integrity can be easily lost and is hard to regain. In Ireland we are not in a bad position, but we must always be vigilant. It is perhaps one of the tasks of the academic community to support that process by taking a direct interest in issues of corruption and integrity and to assess it in a variety of different contexts. DCU has its Institute of Ethics, and other universities have other individuals and groupings that provide scrutiny and analysis. As we seek to recover from our economic problems, these activities are more important than ever.


Is capitalism always corrupt?

December 21, 2008

In the light of the drip-drip of revelations over recent weeks and months about the behaviour of business leaders, particularly in the financial institutions, a number of commentators have suggested that what has been demonstrated is that unregulated capitalism will become inherently corrupt, as the instincts of the key movers and shakers in a capitalist economy are corrupt and they are only held in check through effective regulation. In fact, this thesis is not new – it was suggested in an interesting (if flawed) book by John Girling, Corruption, Capitalism and Democracy, published in 1997 by Routledge. In this the author suggested that there is an inherent contradiction, or clash, between the public service ethos of democracy and the private gain imperative of capitalism, resulting in corruption wherever the latter is not held under strong control.

It could be thought that the news over recent times gives strong credence to that argument. How can anyone justify the apparent lunacy into which financial institutions slipped for no better reason than the maintenance of bonus payments for managers; or what we have just heard about personal (but carefully disguised) loans by a bank to its chairman? Not to mention all the stuff we discovered a few years ago about Enron and WorldCom.

And yet, it is facile to suggest that corruption is somehow symptomatic of capitalism, or even of capitalism only. When the Soviet Union and its satellite states went under in the early 1990s, one of the initial things we discovered was the systematic corruption which had pervaded the upper levels of the system. Furthermore, we know that a number of countries with authoritarian but left-leaning governments (Zimbabwe being an extreme example) have demonstrated huge and often violent levels of corruption.

It seems to me that corruption is always a risk that we run, under any system of government, when there is a sustained period of untroubled economic or political development, such as a sustained boom in a market economy, or a dictatorship without any visible or effective opposition. Recent events have demonstrated the need for vigilance, but perhaps also suggest that every so often a disturbance is needed to clean out unacceptable practices and wholesale lapses of ethics. And while of course it is a disaster when a recession deprives people of jobs and security, it may at least have the side effect of pushing to the surface the  reprehensible behaviour of those who have become arrogant.

The sometimes suggested response – greater levels of regulation – is not always ideal, as its main effect tends to be to bureaucratise behaviour and inhibit initiative; but vigilance is always needed, and the determination to ensure that corruption is never accepted as one of the normal characteristics of public or private conduct. And no system can afford the complacency of a belief that it is immune to such risks.