Corrupt Democracy

Should the Barack Obama administration keep giving aid to the corrupt government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai? Kenyan whistle-blower John Githongo tells FP why pluralism and freedom will never thrive when everyone from officials to cab drivers are skimming off the top.


John Githongo knows up close and personal what corruption looks like. In 2003, as Kenya’s anti-corruption czar, he unearthed a $1 billion scam involving some of the country’s top ministers. The 91-page report he prepared won him no friends at home, and he soon fled the country for fear of his life. Githongo’s story, told in the recently released book It’s Our Turn to Eat, by journalist Michela Wrong, has earned him international acclaim as a whistle-blower who came forward under the most trying of circumstances.

So it is no wonder that Githongo is one of the world’s most sought-after experts on corruption these days, particularly when it comes to donor countries giving development aid. Questions of corruption come up constantly in the work: How do you balance the need to help people with the chance that doing so might give credence and cash to a crony regime? How can you help build government institutions when the money it costs get siphoned off the top? How big a boondoggle is okay to write off before you back away from the country entirely?

Perhaps the best example of the conundrum comes from Afghanistan, where corruption has been a defining feature of Hamid Karzai’s government. The president’s own brother, the powerful governor of Kandahar province, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is believed to be wrapped up in the poppy trade. And this summer, it was reported that members of Karzai’s inner circle were thwarting anti-corruption investigations. Torn between whether to pressure the Afghan president or simply ignore the problem, Washington has waffled. Foreign Policy caught up with Githongo to ask his advice. "The idea that corruption and growth can coexist and eventually lead to some form of liberal democracy is nonsense," he warns.

Foreign Policy: How does corruption fit into the poverty equation?

John Githongo: There’s a sense in which corruption is the No. 1 manufacturer of poverty. In particular, it is the No. 1 engine of creating inequalities in developing societies — which is worse than poverty in and of itself. It’s one thing having high levels of poverty, but it’s a completely different thing to have stark inequalities caused by corruption and the conspicuous consumption that comes with it. [The latter] leads to political contradictions that can destabilize a nation or at the very least undermine democratic progress.

FP: What should the relationship between foreign aid and fighting corruption be? Is it the role of the donors of aid to stand firm on corruption?

JG: USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] is spending American taxpayers’ dollars in other countries [and] that makes dealing with corruption something that has to be on their radar. One [also] has to be careful to ensure that aid does not lend succor to administrations whose political agendas are ultimately opposed to the broader interests of the majority of the population of the country.

FP: How should the Obama administration deal with the Karzai government on corruption?

JG: The sense that I get is that the Obama administration has come at this with a new sense of urgency in the fight against corruption. It’s going to be difficult. When you have systemic corruption in an administration, it becomes counterproductive to implement some of the development [programs because] corruption undermines the very development goals that you’ve set about to achieve in a fundamental way. [In those cases,] what’s the best way to engage? Do we engage with civil society? Do we engage with a particular regime over a particular period of time? There are various forms of pressure that can be applied at various times and a broad gambit of instruments that are available in that kind of situation, keeping in mind the realities on the ground.

The idea that corruption and growth can coexist and eventually lead to some form of liberal democracy is nonsense. A highly heterogeneous population, fledgling governance institutions (judiciary, legislature, security services, civil service, etc.), and a fragmented elite (i.e., they can’t even agree how to steal together without disagreeing) leads to dysfunction, instability and undermines democracy fundamentally. It is partly responsible for the democratic recession under way in Africa at a time of economic growth! [Corruption] is unsustainable when you have an informed population and/or a fragmented armed populace. It becomes a black hole for dollars.

FP: What are some of the pressure points that can be used to fight corruption?

JG: I think one has to deal with the most egregious offenders in that particular administration. One has to be particularly careful with some of the instruments that are available in terms of restricting the ability [of individuals] to travel where there is evidence of corruption. Shoring up the judiciary and the security services, particularly the police, has a major impact, particularly on the poorest who suffer corruption the most.

But I think the key, and I think the Obama administration has nailed this quite well, is that you have to study each context individually; one template cannot fit all. [Re-establishing] a policy capacity within USAID, [for example] — I think that’s very, very timely because what it does is allow [the U.S. government] to understand the specificity of a particular situation and therefore understand the pressure points a lot more clearly in a fragile context like Afghanistan.

FP: What can be done to encourage whistle-blowers to come forward?

JG: Whistle-blowing is a rare thing. I’ll be very honest with you; I don’t think there’s a lot [one can do]; it’s impossible to create a [nonhostile] environment. The United States, with all its laws protecting people who come forward, probably has the most robust legislation — and a few Scandinavian countries — but it is never an easy thing.

With regard to the international community, it is important to recognize that there is a perverse incentive structure in development. Development is an industry, and in an industry, your job is to spend money. If you’re not spending money, you’re not succeeding. And that may sometimes lead to a situation where you may overlook some of the more egregious offenses, or explain them away, or say well, it’s a developing country, this is their culture, etc. [But] in the increasingly globalized world, [you can’t hide that] people are getting robbed. And usually in contexts where [people are being robbed silly, you find that a whole range of other rights are being trampled upon.

FP: What is the most pernicious kind of corruption — big blockbuster scams, or petty, everyday skimming off the top?

JG: Both go together. But it is possible to have high-level of corruption in a country that also has high levels of economic growth taking place at the same time. The tradeoff there is that you need a very strong security service to keep people down to muzzle civil society, media, and ordinary people. That’s a painful tradeoff, especially when [the economic growth] is not being shared equitably.

Usually when you have one, you have the other. But once you have systemic corruption, especially the judiciary and security services, the poor suffer the most. And that has political complications, especially for countries that are trying to democratize — severe political implications. Whereas the big, blockbus
ter-type corruption captures the public imagination, that’s usually hiding a level of systemic corruption at a grassroots level [and] that does a lot to undermine the social fabric and governance institutions. You can’t have grand corruption that is systemic and not have petty corruption in a systemic sort of way.

FP: What’s the best way to reverse the political incentives that drive corruption?

JG: The role of media is key; the role of civil society is key; the support of champions against corruption [is key]. In a society, not everyone is corrupt. Even in the elite you’ll find people moving against the tide and supporting them in any way you can is important and helpful. Usually when you have systemic corruption, things come to a head: There’s a political calamity that takes place. A small group of people [who are] robbing a country silly become more and more repressive, the government becomes more and more dysfunctional, and things fall apart. Eventually, things do sink to a point [that] things open up for change.

FP: What’s your reaction to the argument that, in Afghanistan for example, one should just ignore corruption and do the best we can — it’s not a problem we can fix in the short term, so maybe it’s best to just move on?

JG: It isn’t a problem that you can solve in the short term, and therefore one has to help build institutions locally and keep putting pressure on local leadership to deal with the problem. The media is the lead on this. [Because] after the 15th major scam in a place that is enjoying largesse in terms of development assistance, people get exhausted. People get angry, especially in difficult financial times. So it is not ultimately pragmatic to think that [aid amid corruption] can be sustained over a long period of time; you really can’t have a situation where resources are being misappropriated in your face with the kind of impunity that implies. I don’t think it’s sustainable.

FP: Your home country of Kenya has just backed a new constitution. Does it do enough to address corruption?

JG: I think it’s a great step to have a new constitution. Kenyans have been waiting for a new constitution for 20 years. [Still,] I think it would be a mistake to assume that many of the fundamental problems that underlie the Kenya crisis will be solved by just a constitution, so a lot of hard work remains ahead. I think what the passing of the constitution does most significantly is two things: First is to create a moment of hope for Kenya. That’s a very positive thing.

Second, I think it has [convinced] Kenyans to have a continuing faith in democratic processes and institutions. That people turned out in great numbers to vote for a new constitution, despite the past [history of violence surrounding elections] — that I think is a positive thing. I think that there will be a determined counterreform effort against the constitution in terms of implementation. And the contradictions that [this resistance] will give rise to will be painful. But at least we’re moving forward, not backward.

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