On Corruption in Africa

02.16.2006

The Institute of Public Policy Analysis in Nigeria is soon to release a report on corruption (in its February Newsletter), which suggests that foreign aid contributes to the problem as elites skim off their portion at every level. Dr. Kasper, the author of the report, argues that

‘corruption is a blight on social stability and economic growth. The abuse of political power for private benefit is profoundly unjust to those who are honest or poor.’ 

Dr. Kasper’s point is well taken, much needed funds for education, healthcare and economic projects are diverted into the hands of the already wealthy.  Corruption is perpetuated in this cycle as corruption is also seen as a result of poverty.  Poverty is a cause of corruption because the lack of economic opportunity leaves many individuals, including civil servants, political leaders, and government officials, with few other options at providing for themselves and their families.

This suggests that if poverty were eliminated so to would corruption be eliminated (at least the kind that keeps 50% or more of the country’s population without adequate food, healthcare, and a means to steady income).   Thus well-intentioned donors give money to governments to aid in social and economic development to overcome poverty and consequently corruption, but in this process further corruption occurs and the poor are those that suffer.  Unless opportunities are created for the poor to help themselves, the most viable option for economic prosperity and stability of an individual in a low-income country, is a political or government position, which enables one to have access to money through political power.  This has been suggested as one reason why several presidents of African nations seek to maintain their power. In Gabon, the current president, Omar Bongo, has been the head of state since 1967

What needs to be done is to create economic opportunities through changing regulations and strengthening the institutions of a free market economy and this work must be done through grassroots indigenous organizations (where more money is used to effect positive change). With such opportunities, individuals will have more power to secure a decent standard of living and Presidents will have opportunities to have another means of income post presidency. 
CIPE is working in several African countries to create such an environment.  In Kenya with the Inter Region Economic Network, CIPE supports and online magazine which aims at educating the business community and wider public on the role of a free market in overcoming poverty, thus promoting democracy (a democracy cannot exist when there is no middle class or citizens with the economic means and time to demand a responsive government).

In Ghana, CIPE sponsors the Private Enterprise Foundation’s (PEF) project on Legislative Review and Advocacy, which examines current laws and regulations that have a direct effect on stifling the free market environment in Ghana.  PEF facilitates dialogue with the private sector and presents policy positions on the bills before the Parliament and legislators.  In Mozambique, the Association of Commerce and Industry of Sofala, is carrying out a comprehensive study on corruption—why it happens, its effects and what business and the public sector can do to combat it.  Interesting to note, one finding of the research shows that poorly written laws and the private sector’s lack of information of current regulations contributes to corruption.

What is positive is that Africans recognize what can be done; it is outside donors that need to better understand the real causes and cures for corruption. A recent Washington Post article argued that Africa cannot be fixed by the West and highlighted two examples of private citizens creating opportunities for the poor.  More examples can be found, for example, in Kenya a referendum to change the constitution was rejected that would have allowed the presidency’s office to retain a strong and unbalanced position in the government, overturning clauses hammered out at the National Constitutional Conference of 2003-2004.  In Benin, civil society has held a 48 hour strike to force the government to release adequate funds for the election commissions and not post pone elections for a year.

It seems there is a misconception that corruption in Africa is cultural and that changing this would be difficult, without changing the culture.  The truth is that corruption happens everywhere.  Corruption is not cultural, it is economic, it will never be completely eliminated, but it can be reduced.  The difference in Africa as compared to the US is there is relatively much more economic and political opportunity for the majority.  As institutions are strengthened and established that promote more economic opportunity for the majority and greater political voice for the poor we will see citizens demanding a more responsible government.