Myths versus real cause of corruption

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December 9, 2017 was the International Anti Corruption Day. It was celebrated nationwide in Nigeria by highlighting the evils of corruption in retarding Nigeria’s progress. However, corruption is sometimes portrayed as a cancer in the society. The use of this terminology  indicates that this is a social ill that starts in a place in the body and then spreads as it infects more cells. If this metaphor has any value, it is essential to find the right location of the corruption problem in our societal body.  If you do not know the location of the disease, you are not likely to be able to cure it. So, it is important to recognise, that like any insidious disease, that corruption will present many myths to obfuscate its source to elude attempts to cure it.
   
The following aims to wade through these red herrings and identify where in the body we might administer a treatment that can cure corruption at its true source. We begin our search from where researchers identified the first myth of the cause of corruption as structural defects in a society. In examining structures that may harbour  the source of corruption, we found that countries dominated by Lutheranism, that are geographically small, that never had  a history of exploitation by colonial powers and that are relatively ethnically homogenous have fared better as nations without corruption. As these results are valuable, they are like a cancer patient asking for a cure isn’t helped by the doctor’s advice that he should have chosen other parents other than his own.
   
Myth two borders on the behaviour of citizens like the level of integrity and standard of ethics of politicians, civil servants and other professional groups. Here research data  do not have explanatory power. Thus researchers moved to myth three which is the importance of institutions. But then, institutions are built, reproduced and destroyed by humans and are open to policy induced change. Even then, we need the particular institutions to focus on in order to lower the level of corruption. Here, research provided a clear answer, namely that the importance of formal anti corruption institutions like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is overrated.

A case in point is Uganda; which after numerous interventions and the establishment of an institutional framework; with the anti corruption regulators scoring 99 per cent in Global Integrity Index, yet Uganda is, according to existing measures, one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Another case is Italy. Corruption studies in Italy show a remarkably large variation between the regions. Yet this is a country with established anti corruption institutions for 150 years. The result implies focusing on strong anti corruption agencies is a misplaced anti corruption strategy. This is not to say that laws against corruption are unimportant, but it is obvious from the Italian example that they are far from sufficient. Most highly corrupt countries have stringent laws against corruption.
   
The fourth myth is culturalism. Anthropologists as well as economists are prone to cultural relativism, in using culture to excuse corruption. Economists  even blame the cultures in highly corrupt societies labelling them dysfunctional. However, there are two problems with this cultural view of corruption: first is a lack of empirical support. The second is how to relate it to policy. Morally blaming the culture of a nation does not provide any remedies. The solution is to solve the problem of where corruption is located in the societal body. The answer to this was put forward by the Nobel laureate in economics, Elinor Ostrom when he suggested that we distinguish between, rules in form and rules in use.
   
Organisational theorists have suggested that between culture and formal institutions exists a type of informal institution labelled standard operating procedures. These are rules, not formalised but are well known to participants. But importantly, are not part of their moral orientation. They are simply ordinary social norms. In a corrupt society, even people who think corruption is morally wrong  are likely to take part because they see no point in doing otherwise. There is a clear distinction between understanding corruption as ingrained in the society versus corruption as standard operating procedure that may force people to act in ways they think are morally wrong.
   
From the policy making perspective, this is good news. While there is very little knowledge of how to change the culture or moral norm of a society, there is a considerable amount of research on how standard operating procedures can be changed through collective action. There are tangible examples of how genital mutilation in young girls has been eliminated and how organisations have built trust back into systems where people had previously become disillusioned. Through focused policies aimed at creating rules and standard operating procedures, we might finally be able to challenge corruption at its source and provide a long term cure to a disease that has afflicted the Nigerian society for far too long. A return to true federalism is the best way to tackle corruption.

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