Civic Corruption — an Ontological Perspective


By Monte McMurchy

“Electoral corruption in some countries may consist of vote stealing and intimidation of citizens, while in other regions civic electoral corruption revolves around the theft of public resources to reward followers and to purchase electoral support. At times corrupt incentives are used by elites to keep elections from being genuinely competitive in the first place…”

This is a talk about civic corruption and development. Several questions can be addressed: What are the links between political and economic liberalization—the strengths or weakness of state, political, and social institutions, and the kinds of corruption societies experience?

Corruption benefits the few at the expense of the many; it delays and distorts economic development, preempts basic rights and due process, and diverts [scarce] resources from basic services including international aid and assistance.

Where state institutions are weak, it is often linked to violence and corruption. For millions of people, “democracy” means increased insecurity, and “free markets” are where the affluent tend to become more affluent at the expense of their fellow citizens.

I maintain most strongly that corruption is undemocratic and broadly deleterious to sustained economic and political good governance growth. Since the 1980’s corruption has frequently been seen as an effect, and cause, of incomplete economic and social political liberalization, with public institutions and the political engagement treated primarily as obstructions to the process. Public sector reforms have emphasized narrow goals of “good governance” while liberalization of economies and politics has proceeded without essential institutional foundations. I submit that efficacious reform is a matter not of only an improved public management rubric but of justice! Reform requires “deep democratization”—not just elections but vigorous contention and dialogue over the real issues among people and groups capable of defending themselves politically, and of reaching political compromises sustained by their own lasting interests. This development and enhancement entailing the social ‘ownership’ of ‘good’ governance related institutions helped create democracy in societies where it is now strong. Prescriptive reform ideas are unlikely to graft and take root unless these social foundations are secure.

There has also been a sense that corruption itself is growing rapidly. As suspect regimes lost their ideological cover and other countries moved toward democracy and open markets, many scandals came to light—some new and others of longer standing. “Corruption” is both a provocative term and an attractive [ex post] explanation for a host of development and policy problems, which can involve the electoral process. Not surprisingly those elements seeking remedy action on the problem have portrayed corruption in dramatic terms. International corporations, and international aid agencies including lending institutions have begun to look at corruption within target nations, and within their own programs and operations in a more transparent and objective manner. Corruption has also become the focus of sustained international advocacy—Transparency International founded in 1993 continues to expand its activities on a variety of levels.

The suggestion can be tendered [by the writer] that no one really knows whether corruption is indeed expanding and growing. Corruption is a secretive process in most cases, and all who possess knowledge of such corrupt illicit practice will therefore have a strong interest in concealing these activities of a ‘corrupt’ – ‘venal’ nature. Instead, the most important contrasts are located at deeper levels—in patterns of participation and in the strength of institutions, and linking the political, electoral and economic arenas so as to determine or predict an ethos of unregulated [corrupt] behavior.

Balanced and sustained democratic and market development depend upon—and indeed considered as a developmental ideal are defined by—open—free, competitive, but structured civic electoral participation in politics promoting good governance and in the facilitation of a strong effective economy which entails legitimate, effective governance institutions that both protect and restrain activities in public policy generation while maintaining clear boundaries and paths of access between them. Intensive economic competition does not necessarily create—produce broad based economic growth. Considered sound policies and institutions that facilitate and protect property rights, investment and a fair redistribution of wealth are also critical elements in the promotion of an objective, fair regime of economic political governance. Political competition alone—even if expressed through the civic electoral model [elections] is not alone adequate—elections must be legitimate and decisive as well as free and fairly competitive and access, rights and freedoms of expression between election campaigns are of crucial importance. Open, free-fair competitive electoral participation is essential if people [citizens] are to express their electoral preferences unencumbered and have their choices arbitrated [justly] by decision makers. A critical aspect of democracy is to be able to reward effective government and being able to oust the incompetent or abusive. Citizens who have real political and economic alternatives will be less vulnerable to exploitation and dependency upon the state for personal and economic protection from harm or sanction. Civic participation must be orderly and structured—total laissez-faire in the political and economic arena is likely to empower the few and enrich the few [oligarchs] and impoverish the many, while a political free-for-all among twenty or thirty political entities will not yield democratic mandates. Insecurity can induce politicians, unsure of their hold on power, to enrich themselves as quickly as they can, and economic entrepreneurs to buy official protection while insisting on maximum short-term returns.

Democratic politics rests not only on open competition, but also on normative assumptions of equality and fair play adumbrated by the notion of “one person—one vote.” Self-interest may drive the process but competition among the various interest groups must be entailed by specific previously agreed-upon judicially rendered boundaries entailing both conduct and performance to an agreed upon series of protocols.

Institutionalized paths and rules of access between the political and economic arenas of influence are just as important as the judicially rendered boundaries. These boundaries are essential for maintaining accountability of state to society, and for feedback that can send critical signals to policymakers and other centers of influence. Public officials require adequate autonomy to perform their work in an uncompromised, prescriptive authoritative fashion, while groups in society and the economy cannot be the instruments [tools] of the politicians and senior bureaucrats. Maintaining the balance is complicated enough in mature democracies—in transitional societies creating accepted boundaries and paths of access/influence could be a most fundamental challenge.

Problems with civic electoral participation and institutional degradation not only contribute to corruption but shape corruption in a variety of ways. Electoral corruption in some countries may consist of vote stealing and intimidation of citizens, while in other regions civic electoral corruption revolves around the theft of public resources to reward followers and to purchase electoral support. At times corrupt incentives are used by elites to keep elections from being genuinely competitive in the first place.

Corruption in civil society is of a deep normative concern and can be a matter of considerable ontological dispute in terms of the absolute essence essential in defining the moment. Precise and absolute definitions of corruption and corrupt practice can be considered as being a matter of a long running debate in attempting to parse with confidence the absolute definition as to the ‘real’ entailment – corruption.

Corruption involves the abuse of a trust—one involving public power for private personal benefit, which often emerges in the form of monies, and power, which to a degree can be considered as being not dissimilar. In rapidly changing societies it is not always clear what those limits are, and the term “corruption” may be applied broadly which could lead to the [homogenizational] denudation of the term if not concept of “corruption” and “corrupt practice.” One definition of corruption can be stated as the abuse of public roles or resources for private benefit with emphasis that “abuse,” “public,” “private,” and even “benefit” are matters of contention and numerous societies and of varying degrees of ambiguity in most.

Civic electoral participation in forms both helpful and harmful proliferated while state institutions were being de-emphasized, curtailed or even defined as causes of corruption and barriers to development. For many citizens ‘democracy’ can entail increased poverty and insecurity in personal life, and ineffective leadership and the development of public policy in the public realm of providing good governance.

All too often in the policy debate, however, corruption has been seen as a generic problem. Its deeper origins, the ways it is embedded in political and economic processes, and its role as a symptom of diverse and problematical relationships between wealth and power, public and private interests, and state and society, are acknowledged but shrouded with extreme ambiguity in being understood in depth and with precision. How rapidly changing societies achieve a normative standard place is reduced to recommendations for technical changes in “governance” and requires “political will” to effect normative positive change.

Monte McMurchy is the former UNMIL Senior Electoral Advisor and former Country Director under aegis USAID/Liberia.



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