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What if Grand Corruption is the Price of Peace?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

An old teacher of mine, the late, great Professor Ronald Dworkin (professor of jurisprudence and political philosophy) used to say this to us: principles are often in conflict…what do you do then? How do you get to the ‘right answer’? He was talking about constitutional and, ultimately, moral principles. But principles are often in conflict in the business of international development as well. It would be great if life could be as simple and as unclouded as water in crystal, but it is not.

Here is an example. On April 1 this year, I was watching the Charlie Rose Show, here in the United States. One of his guests that night was a top American general, Major General H.R. McMaster. He turned out to be an impressive, agile, excellent mind. One of the questions he was asked was about the perceived prevalence of corruption in a particular crisis-torn developing country that he was very familiar with. Charlie Rose blamed the president of that country for the situation. The General said the matter was far more complicated than that. Then he embarked on a crisp analysis of the nature of the political settlement…such as it is …in that country, and why a hasty imposition of norms of good governance can, in fact, make a bad situation much worse. I don’t want to discuss that country but you can find the interview here.

What I am concerned to draw attention to is the link between ‘elite settlements’ and grand corruption in several countries. But, first, what are elite settlements? As classically defined by Michael G. Burton and John Higley:

Elite settlements have two main consequences: they create patterns of open but peaceful competition, based on the ‘norm of restrained partisanship’, among all major elite factions; and they transform unstable political regimes, in which irregular seizures of government executive power by force are frequent or widely expected occurrences, into stable regimes, in which forcible power seizures no longer occur and are not widely expected. These changes in elite behavior and regime operation pave the way for, though do not guarantee, the emergence of democratic politics.

The article contains examples from history and the usual academic ifs and buts. What matters is the core idea that elite settlements often produce peace and stability in particular contexts, but they also often come with an agreed division of the spoils. It works something like this:
  • Faction A gets the ministry of defense and all the juicy jobs and contract-skimming opportunities.
  • Faction B gets the ministry of finance.
  • Faction C gets mining.
  • Faction D gets works and housing (juicy!) and so on.
Now, suppose a few years into this arrangement international donors show up insisting, as they would and must, that there has to be an end to corruption, and the faction leaders reply:

‘If you say rules are rules, how are we going to survive? And do you think we are likely to take that lightly?’

There are contexts today where violence has flared up again because some factions feel that the bargain reached… the elite settlement … is not being honored.

What is particularly interesting, though, is the fact that international donors are not the only ones pushing norms of good governance. In several countries today, we have newly minted technocratic elites allied with global business interests pushing desperately for improvements in the quality of governance in the face of massive corruption. In addition, several of the middle class protests going on around the world are also about the quality of governance…no matter the nature of the elite settlement. Unfortunately, wherever you have elite factions (including, sometimes, their foreign sponsors!) still able to destabilize a country unless they are allowed to keep their snouts in the collective trough, well, you do have a problem.

Is this an easy problem to solve? Of course not. It is far easier to blog about it and move on. But then moving on is what we all do. There are these problems we cannot fix; we refer to them as ‘political economy challenges’ without saying more. We do the best we can, and we all carry on. Therefore, when it comes to anti-corruption efforts, incrementalism reigns supreme.

It is what it is.

Photograph by Simone D. McCourtie via World Bank Photo Collection, available here
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