Does Power Still Corrupt? Absolutely.

Sometimes public officials, national and local, want to raise cash on short notice, and in countries that lack the institutions that enable citizens to hold government officials accountable, they can come up with creative ways to get it. Take Zimbabwe. In their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu ...

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes public officials, national and local, want to raise cash on short notice, and in countries that lack the institutions that enable citizens to hold government officials accountable, they can come up with creative ways to get it.

Take Zimbabwe. In their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson tell the story of a national lottery held there in January 2000 that was open to thousands of depositors who kept at least 5,000 Zimbabwean dollars in accounts with the Zimbabwe Banking Corporation, a partly state-owned bank. Following a public drawing, the grand prize, 100,000 Zimbabwean dollars, went to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president and, clearly, a very lucky man.

Mugabe remains in power, of course, and his country has only grown more corrupt, according to a newly released report from Transparency International. The NGO reports, among other things, that a local hospital not only charges a U.S. $50 delivery fee for mothers who give birth on the premises, but recently added an additional U.S. $5 fee each time the woman screams during childbirth, a penalty for "raising false alarm." This in a country where the average annual income has fallen to about U.S. $150.

Sometimes public officials, national and local, want to raise cash on short notice, and in countries that lack the institutions that enable citizens to hold government officials accountable, they can come up with creative ways to get it.

Take Zimbabwe. In their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson tell the story of a national lottery held there in January 2000 that was open to thousands of depositors who kept at least 5,000 Zimbabwean dollars in accounts with the Zimbabwe Banking Corporation, a partly state-owned bank. Following a public drawing, the grand prize, 100,000 Zimbabwean dollars, went to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president and, clearly, a very lucky man.

Mugabe remains in power, of course, and his country has only grown more corrupt, according to a newly released report from Transparency International. The NGO reports, among other things, that a local hospital not only charges a U.S. $50 delivery fee for mothers who give birth on the premises, but recently added an additional U.S. $5 fee each time the woman screams during childbirth, a penalty for "raising false alarm." This in a country where the average annual income has fallen to about U.S. $150.

It’s also a country where more than 60 percent of citizens who answered Transparency International’s survey reported paying at least one bribe in the past 12 months. The world average is 27 percent. Other figures include 54 percent in India, 33 percent in Mexico, 22 percent in Greece, 7 percent in the United States, 3 percent in Canada, and 1 percent in Japan. The BBC has produced a useful graphic on the dozens of countries surveyed, which underscores the point that bribery, extortion, and fraud remain common, particularly in the poorest of developing countries.

But these are not simply stories of individual victims of injustice. If public anger over a land development deal in central Istanbul can provoke a police crackdown that sets off nationwide protests in Turkey, if a 9-cent hike in bus fares in Sao Paulo can trigger demonstrations across Brazil, and if the desperate act of a single vegetable vendor in Tunisia can launch upheaval across the Arab world, then individual acts of corruption can now create a level of unrest that can quickly become everyone’s problem.

Willis Sparks is director in Eurasia Group’s global macro practice. 

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