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Why is Corruption Today Less of a Taboo than a Quarter Century Ago?

Augusto Lopez-Claros's picture
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For those of us who have had an interest in corruption for much of our careers, there is little doubt that sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a shift in thinking within the development community about the role of corruption in the development process. The shift was tentative at first; continued reluctance to touch upon a subject that was seen to have a large political dimension coexisted for a while with increasing references to the importance of “good governance” in encouraging successful development. What were the factors that contributed to this shift? One that quickly comes to mind is linked to the falling of the Berlin Wall and the associated collapse of central planning as a supposedly viable alternative to the free market. It was obvious that it was not inappropriate monetary policies that led to the collapse of central planning but rather widespread institutional failings, including a lethal mix of authoritarianism (i.e., lack of accountability) and corruption.

The collapse of central planning in the late 1980s and the need for the international community to assist these countries in making a successful transition to democratic forms of governance and economies based on market principles made it glaringly clear that it would take far more to do so than “getting inflation right” or reducing the budget deficit. Literally overnight, the economics profession was forced to confront a much broader set of issues beyond conventional macroeconomic policy. Related to the demise of central planning, the end of the Cold War had clear cut implications for the willingness of the international community to turn a blind eye to glaring instances of corruption in places where ideological loyalties had led to episodes of collective blindness. By the late 1980s, for instance, Mobutu was cut off by the donor community, no longer willing to quietly reward him for his persistent loyalty to the West during the Cold War.

A second factor was growing frustration with the plight of people in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Gains in the global fight against poverty had begun to bear some fruit but these were largely concentrated in China, with Africa actually seeing further increases in the number of poor. I was an economist in the IMF during the late 1980s and early 1990s and distinctly remember efforts by the IMF staff—particularly in Africa—to look beyond macroeconomic stabilization to issues of structural and institutional reforms and corruption could no longer be ignored.

A third factor had to do with developments in the academic community. In particular, research on the importance of property rights, education and training, and institutions, including some empirical work which began to suggest that differences in institutions appeared to explain an important share of the growth differential between countries, and therefore have an influence upon countries’ growth performance. (For a nice survey see, for instance, Acemoglu et. al., “Institutions as the Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth”, in Handbook of Economic Growth, Elsevier, 2004).  For a growing number of economists corruption began to be seen as an economic issue and this led to a better understanding of the economic effects of corruption, a topic to which we will turn in a future blog.

Also playing an important role was the intensification, beginning in the 1980s, of the pace of globalization. Globalization and its supporting technologies have clearly led to a remarkable increase in transparency and to people’s demand for openness and greater scrutiny. The multilateral organizations were not immune to these influences. How could one ignore or fail to see the stashing away of billions of dollars of ill-gotten wealth in secret bank accounts by the world’s worst autocrats, many of them long-standing clients of these organizations?

In parallel to these developments and further raising international public awareness of corruption, the 1990s witnessed a large number of scandals involving major political figures in some form of bribery or corruption. In India and Pakistan the prime ministers were defeated largely because they were dogged by corruption charges. In South Korea two presidents were jailed following disclosures of bribery, while in Brazil and Venezuela bribery charges resulted in the presidents being impeached and removed from office. In Italy, Italian magistrates sent to jail a not insignificant number of the political class, who had ruled the country in the post-war period, and exposed the vast web of bribery that had bound together political parties and members of the business community. There was less progress in Africa but, without question, corruption became harder to hide and the new technologies of communication proved a useful ally of increasing openness and transparency.

A related development pertains to changes in the global economy, which significantly boosted the perceived importance of productivity as a primary engine of prosperity. Globalization highlighted the importance of efficiency. Countries could not hope to maintain their presence in the global economy and compete in an increasingly complex marketplace, unless they used scarce resources effectively. And the prevalence of corruption definitely detracted from this. Furthermore, business leaders began to speak more forcefully about the need for a level-playing field and the costs associated with doing business in corruption-ridden environments.

In the 1990s the United States government made efforts to keep the issue of corruption alive in its discussion with OECD partners, further raising international awareness. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 had forbidden American businessmen and corporations from bribing foreign government officials, imposing stiff penalties, including prison terms, on those engaged in the paying of illegal bribes. Because other OECD countries were not subject to such restrictions—in fact, the payment of bribes continued to be tax deductible in most other OECD countries, as a cost of doing business abroad—American companies began to complain that they were losing business to OECD competitors. Academics sifting through the data showed that following passage of the Act, U.S. business activities abroad declined substantially, as the Act had actually helped to undermine the competitive position of American firms. These developments gave considerable impetus to U.S. government efforts to persuade other OECD members to ban bribery practices and in 1997 the OECD adopted the Anti-Bribery Convention, an important legal achievement.

Also contributing to this shift in attitude was the work of Transparency International (TI) and the publication, beginning in 1993, of its now well-known Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). That corruption existed everywhere was a well-known fact. What TI showed was that some countries had been more successful than others in curtailing it. The work of TI helped greatly to focus public attention on the issue of corruption and contributed to legitimizing public discourse on issues of corruption and thus eased the transition by the multilateral organizations into doing the same.

Transparency International was soon assisted in its efforts by the international organizations themselves. At the IMF/World Bank meeting in 1996 the Bank president, James Wolfensohn, gave a speech in which he did not mince words, saying that there was a collective responsibility to deal with “the cancer of corruption.” More important, Mr. Wolfensohn gave strong backing to Bank staff efforts to develop a broad range of governance indicators, including those specifically capturing the extent of corruption. This was an extremely important development because it made it possible for the Bank, through the use of quantified indicators and data, to focus attention on issues of governance and corruption while at the same time not appearing to interfere in the political affairs of its members.

While the above goes some way to explain what contributed to shift the thinking about the importance of corruption, in our next blogs we will examine three additional issues: what are the sources of corruption, what is the economic impact of corruption and what can be done about it?


Submitted by JIMMY ODHIAMBO on

There is the demand and supply side of corruption. While a lot of anti-corruption initiatives focus more on the demand side mainly Public Officers the players in the supply side in most cases are untouchable. It is important we change this approach.

Submitted by J Farrow on

The purpose of most anti-corruption laws is to catch offenders on the supply side of corruption. Too long they have been left alone with the focus on those officials demanding bribes.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Many thanks for your comments. We will address this issue in forthcoming blogs. Augusto

Submitted by FRITZ WALCHLI on

fine report, thank you. am looking forward to your 3 additional issues

Submitted by Altair Maia on

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Submitted by haeduus on

"It was not inappropriate monetary policies that led to the collapse of central planning but rather widespread institutional failings, including a lethal mix of authoritarianism (i.e., lack of accountability) and corruption".
Are you kidding? Central planning was abandoned in Africa following the institution of Structural Adjustment Programs in the 80's by IMF and World Bank. That was, as you argued, the right way to run African (and South american) economies; this was in accordance with the Washington Consensus inspired by AynRand-Reagan-Thatcher-Lucas-Prescott market-oriented policies and models. You, people at World Bank, have the ingenuity to find 1000 reasons to justify even the unjustifiable. If you look at the pioneering work by Paolo Mauro, former chief of Research at the IMF, published by the Quaterly Journal of Economics (, 7 out of 12 African countries in the sample experienced in the 80's less corruption relatively to the index set by the statistics data. We already know that corruption is the new Trojan Horse used by the international organizations (IMF and World Bank) to justify their failed recommendations and policies in Africa. Let's look at what you tried since the 60's: United Nations Decade of Development 1960-1970; Industrial Development Decade for Africa 1980-1990; Second Industrial Development Decade for Africa 1991-2000; First United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006); Second United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty 2008-2017;... Now it's the Millenium... Where are the results ? In Cameroon, corruption, as stated by judicial authorities, account for only 0.3% of total fiscal revenue of the country since 1982. Can this be the reason why this country is still poor?

Corruption was never a taboo - but I think people are talking about it more because of social media and the Internet. If someone sees something wrong right now, he just takes a picture, and then puts it somewhere on his Facebook profile or his Twitter account. That wasn't the case 25 years ago (or even 10 years ago).

By the way, in some countries, corruption is socially acceptable by the people - as long as it's not affecting them directly, who cares?

Submitted by Anonymous on

I agree that the latest technologies have raised the profile of corruption and have made it more difficult to hide instances of corruption. However, on the issue of whether corruption is acceptable to some people as long as it does not affect them, the question is how does one know that its impact is circumscribed or limited? In a future blog I will comment on the consequences of corruption and you will see how pernicious and widespread it is in its effects. Augusto

Useful background. Hopefully the next few articles develop what has happened since 1997 and in particular through 2 global recessions, rapid growth in developing markets, and rapid changes in the media and ICT markets. Is there some measure of overall corruption within particular industries, geographies, etc... that has been developed?

Submitted by mike on

Thank you very much for highlighting the issue and the supply side effect. Your mention of Transparency International is apposite. They have been at it now for 20 years and deserve acclaim. Peter Eigen of TI refers to civil society efforts of NGO's as the necessary third leg of the 'magic triangle' in the fight against corruption reinforcing the efforts of governments and those companies who act and don't allow their people and supply chains to engage in corrupt conduct. There should be many more of them.

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