Corruption matters

Published January 13, 2016
The writer is a development and political economist.
The writer is a development and political economist.

FEW issues irk pious Pakistanis more than political corruption. Stories of corruption, even unproven, drive the pious into frenzied rage. Demands for ruthless accountability, even utilising unconstitutional means if necessary, soon follow, since corruption is viewed as a cancer destroying Pakistan. Corruption is ethically wrong and retards development. However, one must adopt sensible, tried-and-tested rather than voodoo strategies to eradicate it. This involves debunking several myths.

The first is that corruption brings the development train to a screeching halt, and, thus, states desiring development must first start a crusade to eradicate it rapidly and completely. However, global experiences reflected in annual Transparency Corruption Perception Indexes surprisingly paint a different picture. To be sure, lying at the bottom of the heap (below 20pc), the most corrupt states are also almost all economic basket cases such as Somalia, South Sudan etc. Around scores of 25-30pc, one comes across ones which have at least modestly progressed, eg, Bangladesh, Uganda, Russia, Lebanon, Kazakhstan and Iran (27pc). Going only slightly above Pakistan’s current score (29pc) and into the 30s, one even finds stellar performers like Vietnam, India and China while in the still less than ideal 40s, one finds Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, Kuwait and Italy. In fact, when China unleashed its dizzying growth rates in the 1990s, its scores were lower than Pakistan’s today.

Thus, while development certainly comes to a screeching halt from exceptional levels of corruption (scores below 20pc), progress and that too rapid one, is possible above scores of 25pc where Pakistan currently lies. Corrup­tion itself certainly impedes progress even there, but its negative impact can be countered to produce overall high progress if other drivers such as investment, innovation etc. are in place. Still unconvinced, pious Pakistanis may argue that since corruption still impedes progress, targeting corruption is still important since countries growing rapidly despite high corruption would grow even faster without it. I agree with them but differ about the right time frame and tools for eradicating it.

Global experiences show that corruption reduces glacially.

This brings us to the second myth about corruption: it is best eradicated by big-bang, time-compressed, extra-constitutional measures like Rangers operations or army takeovers. But, there are hardly any successful examples of the extra-constitutional big-bang approach globally.

Global experiences show that corruption usually reduces glacially. So over the 20 years since 1995, the scores of a random sample of countries have improved very slowly: China (22-35pc), Indonesia (20-34pc), India (28-38pc), Turkey (41-45pc) and Pakistan

(22-29pc). There is no developing country that moved from scores of around 20-30pc to West-like scores of 90pc in 20 years, let alone in a few months as many pious Pakistanis think is possible. But in other countries, one does not find unrealistic demands to eradicate corruption overnight through extra-constitutional means.

In reviewing histories of the anti-corruption efforts and anti-corruption manuals, nowhere did I find a role for extra-constitutional measures for fighting corruption. In fact, all I found were exhortations for strengthening democracy further for fighting corruption. Thus, pious Pakistanis delude themselves in thinking that Pakistan can be an exception in ending corruption rapidly and non-organically.

A third myth prevalent in Pakistan is that the presence of an honest person at the top can have a salutary impact on reducing corruption in particular and in fostering rapid progress in general. Pakistan’s own history debunks this myth. In the 68 years since independence, it is only in 28 years (Ayub era, the 1990s and post-2008) that the top leader in Pakistan was someone seen as being personally corrupt in the sense of taking bribes or having very close corrupt relatives. Also, Pakistan’s Trans­parency scores have improved since Mush­arraf even though he himself is generally seen as financially non-corrupt. Furthermore, Yahya, Bhutto and Zia arguably inflicted far greater harm on Pakistan than leaders perceived as corrupt, eg Zardari and the Sharifs.

All this does not mean that Pakistanis should ignore corruption but only that they should support appropriate strategies. Rather than egging Rangers to tackle corruption, they should press for strengthening NAB and the FIA even if this takes longer to produce results since the results will be more sustainable. Top-level mega-corruption in KP and Balochistan (under the former chief minister Dr Malik) is lower not because of any Rangers operations but because the democratic process is gradually producing parties which are cleaner. Leaving Dr Asim Hussain in the good hands of NAB and the FIA since his links with terrorism seem tenuous but with corruption strong, the Rangers should focus on capturing core planners and implementers of violence in Karachi even if that includes top politicians, so long as the evidence is strong.

The writer is a development and political economist.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2016



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