Exaggerated Corruption Narratives

Exaggerated Corruption Narratives
I was reading Ha Joon Chang’s book “Bad Samaritans,” where the title alludes to those who have worthy intentions but who make things worse by upholding simplistic ideologies. I came across the line

“… so many developing country politicians who came to power on an anti-corruption platform not only fail to clean up the system but often end up being ousted or even jailed for corruption themselves” (p. 165).

That led me thinking about former PM Imran Khan who arrived with a fierce mandate to combat corruption but under whose tenure (2018 – 2022), Pakistan’s corruption rank increased from 117 to 140.

Khan’s narrative on corruption is imbibed by many who put him on a pedestal. And putting people on a pedestal or making gods out of them is a notable South Asian trait. For instance, it has been observed that segments of the masses worship actors like Amitabh Bachchan or Rajnikanth in India. Similarly, the cleric who was lynched for blasphemous exaggeration of Imran Khan showcases the extremes of personality cults.

The narrative imbibed by such people is that God is punishing them for rampant corruption signified by rishwat (bribery), kam chori (shirking), and chor bazari (black marketing). Therefore, the solution lies in purification of the self and the system.

However, this simplistic understanding is rejected by Ha-Joon Chang. He offers examples of how many advanced countries industrialized despite corruption. For instance, despite the sale of political office in Britain and France, the appropriation of $15 - $35 billion by Suharto in Indonesia, and the allocation of public office to loyalists in the U.S., all such countries were able to achieve economic development.

Chang rejects cultural stereotypes that people are poor because they are lazy or corrupt. He alludes to the fact that both the Japanese and the Germans were stereotypically labeled as lazy, thieving, or uncreative by outsiders when they were poor. But the same Japanese and Germans are now considered to be industrious, loyal, and creative.

Chang emphasizes that contrary to the popular narrative, the causality runs from economic development towards culture. He emphasizes that corruption is an outcome where poverty makes the poor dependent on the largesse of the politicians, who in turn take bribes from the corporate sector to meet their public obligations. This means that when a country achieves economic development then the culture against corruption is developed.

What this suggests for Pakistan is that we need to stop Pakistani stereotyping and Pakistan bashing. There are plenty of Hindutvists, Indian Muslims, and Pakistanis with a false consciousness (i.e., the likes of Stephen in Django Unchained) who already do that.

Chang goes on to say that corruption may facilitate growth if resources through bribes flow to those who have better investment opportunities instead of those who indulge in conspicuous consumption. Moreover, corruption may enhance efficiency if bribes allow to cut through the inefficient red tape that hampers investment.

However, he adds the caveat that funds channeled through corruption stay within the country instead of being siphoned off to tax havens overseas. This is how he explains why Zaire tanked and Indonesia developed despite the former having relatively less corruption than the latter.

Overall, the narrative on corruption is simplistically exaggerated. What is required for Pakistan is not populist rhetoric but institution building. Unfortunately, Khan offered a heavy dose of the former and failed at the latter.

Institutions are built through a vision. The leader selects capable people and devolves power to them. For instance, the CEOs at Toyota gained an edge against GM by offering a conducive workplace for the workers and listening to their feedback on making improvements to the production process. This contrasted with the assembly line mechanical approach of GM that eventually went bankrupt.

Khan fell short on institution building. For instance, effective functioning of democracy requires that citizens participate through rational argument and respect those they disagree with. However, under Khan civil discourse was substituted with name calling of political opponents. This is a trait that he shared with the deceased TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi. In other words, far from strengthening democratic institutions he weakened them.

Maybe Khan should have picked his battles wisely. Instead of going on witch hunts of political opponents, had he spent more time building institutions, facilitating the next generation of leaders, and maintaining unity under crisis, he could have at least saved Pakistan a political crisis if not the economic and climate change induced crises.

But with his multiple U turns, it became evident that he had no vision beyond vendettas and a populist rhetoric. In short, he turned out to be a bad Samaritan. And for all this talk of corruption, he failed on delivering economic development, the one thing that could have helped address his exaggerated narrative.