Does corruption actually mean anything anymore?

If you’re even somewhat familiar with development studies or issues of international poverty, you’ve likely heard quite a bit about corruption in the past few years. From academic research which argues that corruption “dissipates essential resources and produces poverty” to Forbes articles that state that corruption “delays, distorts and diverts economic growth”, everyone seems to agree that corruption is slowing international development if not directly causing poverty.

I’ll be the first to admit that I think there is an actual argument to be made that corruption, while a broad category of crimes, is a negative force in many societies. Generally, it’s the illicit and unreasonable transfer of public resources into private hands or the garnishing of individuals’ resources which threatens to shut down what economists have called the virtuous circle. That said, with a recent Foreign Policy magazine piece, however, I think corruption-focused explanations of slow or otherwise lacking development have jumped the shark, linking diverse social forces and unpopular policies together as “corruption”.

To its credit, the article does point to a few scandals that are actually cases of corruption. After a lengthy description of the higher growth rates and economic successes in the first few years under the current Indian government, the article notes that now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “sits atop a mountain of dirt” and has elicited massive protests against corruption during his term. It then goes on to cite the Business Standard, which has reported that local records-keeping in the new rural jobs program (NREGA) has been fraudulent. Local officials have over-reported the days of labor provided, and pocketed the additional days’ pay. Foreign Policy then notes that the corruption surrounding the program has led to a ballooning of costs, causing the federal government’s deficit to markedly increase.

But immediately after this clear example of a corruptly run program that has been transformed from a huge assistance to rural workers into an unproductive cost for the whole of India, Foreign Policy continues, “Singh’s jobs program is not the only indication that India is resurrecting its statist past.” Apparently, readers are intended to see NREGA as either innately corrupt as it’s a government program or the description of corruption that was the backbone of the previous paragraph as merely incidental to the sinister statism of NREGA. One of the first examples provided of the returning statism, however, is the scandal surrounding Indian-made Aakash tablets – which the Fast Company article cited by Foreign Policy unambiguously depicts as the Indian government being fleeced by fraudulent private contractors. How this pertains to a state-focused developmental strategy (when the state subcontracted much of the process) or corruption (when the state is presented as having selected a particular company purely based on price) is left unclear.

Instead, the readers are whisked away to a litany of environmentally-themed complaints – namely that Vedanta-owned mines have been shut down. Of course, the government isn’t presented as siding with the mass protests against those mining operations, but merely being vaguely “statist” and perhaps by implication “corrupt”. The actions of the Indian government are honestly to be expected, given the lengthy history of calamities for public health and safety (Warning: discussion of Union Carbide leak at Bhopal) as the result of lax environmental policies at foreign-managed factories, mines, or other industrial centers. That’s to say nothing of the clear push from the public for domestic and democratic control of India’s natural resources.

From that discussion, the article shifts away to former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who opposed giving Walmart a partial share in domestic clothing stores. That naturally leads the article back to its original point on corruption – namely with Mukherjee’s role in legislating a retroactive tax on British-owned Vodafone in direct opposition to an Indian Supreme Court ruling. The article at least briefly acknowledges that what Vodafone is being pursued for is in effect international tax evasion on a massive scale even if it failed to acknowledge the Indian Supreme Court’s history of bias towards the wealthy. Still, the article fails to overtly recognize that this incident is hardly corruption, even if a worrisome challenge to the rule of law and certain democratic norms. Corruption is a specific problem, independent from upsets in governmental chains of authority or legitimacy.

But that’s ultimately the effect of this article – a confusion of what corruption even necessarily means. The final paragraph that describes the endemic corruption in India contains confusing passages, such as:

“As for corruption, though Singh’s personal decency remains largely above reproach, nobody can say the same for his government. On Singh’s watch a new ‘resource raj‘ has risen from the ashes of the license-permit raj, in which the government, not private business, decided everything from the location of a factory to how many widgets it could produce.”

How the state-centered development through a “resource raj” is innately corrupt is left unsaid. Woven into the description of corruption in India is a criticism of numerous political practices (most clearly regulatory state programs and the challenges to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy) that aren’t necessarily corruption, per se. Confusingly, many protests against the Supreme Court have been founded on seeing it as abetting corruption, yet this article implies that legislative efforts on those issues are in fact examples of corruption themselves. The only two examples of actual corruption in the article – the scandals surrounding NREGA and the “2G scandal” – concern the inexcusable failures of the few federal programs aimed at helping rural and poor Indians. The article then lists other efforts that are “corrupt” – subsidies to domestic industries to make former luxuries accessible to the average Indian, attempts to empower local communities with occasional control over mineral and other public resources, and efforts to address tax evasion by wealthy companies with monopolistic power over the Indian market.

Corruption seems to have become an elastic term that can be used to justify classist attacks on policy, while occasionally noting actual cases of bribery of or fraud by public officials. Even that Foreign Policy article itself begins to admit this in its conclusion, disparaging that Prime Minister Singh’s policies have secretly always been “solidly redistributionist” as if redistribution of wealth would be a terrible proposal in a country with a huge and growing gap between economic classes. The article likewise argues that these “statist” and “redistributionist” notions are the result of the Congress Party which (as the article laments) remains convinced “that India needs welfare programs more than it needs jobs”. In ignoring that the leading corruption scandal was a program designed to create temporary employment, what will the writers for Foreign Policy call Prime Minister Singh next? The food stamp Prime Minister?

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One thought on “Does corruption actually mean anything anymore?

  1. […] The more unusual but still mainstream US-based media, which is to say NBC, and most other “Western” countries’ major media have at least depicting some of the basic political discussion going on in Egypt, but there’s still clear limitations. Both MSNBC and France 24 covered recently elected President Mohamed (sometimes spelled Mursi) Morsi’s speech on Saturday, in which Morsi tried to make the case that he’s fulfilled the campaign promises that he could in his first hundred days in office and is working on the rest. Before we give those media outlets a gold star though, it’s worth noting that neither of their articles actually dive into the details of what the gap between his promises and his effect actually is. MSNBC’s coverage focuses on the seemingly random detail of his failure to cost-effectively subsidize butane cylinders, which much like his speech isn’t adequately contextualized. France 24 doesn’t even touch on any concrete issue, instead focusing on our old friend – the ever nebulous corruption. […]

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