The High Cost of Corruption

A Scourge That Afflicts Rich and Poor

NAIROBI, Kenya, JULY 31, 2004 ( Corruption continues to be part of everyday life in many countries. The issue recently surfaced in Kenya, where the British high commissioner, Edward Clay, came under fire for his outspoken comments on how corruption is holding back the country.

According to the Financial Times of July 16, Clay attacked the government led by President Mwai Kibaki, saying that its members “have the arrogance, greed and perhaps a desperate sense of panic to lead them to eat like gluttons.”

Clay estimated that the government had entered into corrupt deals worth $192 million since the president led an opposition alliance to an election victory in December 2002. Days earlier, eight embassies, including those of Britain, Canada, Japan and the United States, released statements expressing alarm at the extent of high-level graft, the Financial Times reported.

In Indonesia, meanwhile, the attorney general announced that the nation had lost $2.35 billion in the past two years due to corruption, BBC reported June 18. The figure comes from the 108 cases investigated by authorities in the first four months of this year alone.

Siphoning off billions

A look at the state of corruption came on March 25 with the publication by Transparency International of its “Global Corruption Report 2004.” The report focused on the problem of political corruption. In a press release, the group’s chairman, Peter Eigen, said: “Political corruption undermines the hopes for prosperity and stability of developing countries, and damages the global economy.”

The report observed that laws governing political finance are generally inadequate. One in four countries even lack basic disclosure requirements on funding sources for candidates and parties. And one in three countries still has no overall system in place to regulate political party finance.

The report also contained a list of the most corrupt politicians in recent times. Top place goes to former Indonesian President Mohammed Suharto, who reigned 1967-’98. Transparency International reckoned that he embezzled between $15 billion and $35 billion. Next in line was Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines president from 1972-’86, who allegedly made off with $5 billion to $10 billion.

Zaire’s leader from 1965-’97, Mobutu Sese Seko, is reputed to have accounted for around $5 billion, while Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s president from 1993-’98, was responsible for a sum ranging from $2 billion to $5 billion. Lower down on the list was former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, for around $1 billion, and onetime Haitian head of state, Jean-Claude Duvalier, $300 million to $800 million.

And it’s not only developing countries that have a problem with corruption. Efforts by the European Union to clean up its own budget processes have not had much success, the Financial Times reported April 6.

On taking office four years ago, Romano Prodi, who this November will finish his term as president of the European Commission, promised a campaign against fraud and financial mismanagement. But the European Parliament’s annual “Report on the Protection of the Financial Interests of the Communities and the Fight Against Fraud” has little good news, the Financial Times said.

The number of cases of irregularity and fraud related to the EU budget rose by 13% in 2001-’02. And the number of cases in the agricultural sector rose by 36% during the same period. Overall, more than 2.12 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in EU money was spent irregularly.

An attempt to calculate the overall sum of money spent on bribes worldwide was made by the World Bank Institute. According to an April 8 press release, the amount was put at more than $1 trillion a year. Daniel Kaufmann, the institute’s director for Governance, says this figure is an estimate of actual bribes paid in rich and developing countries alike.

Kaufmann noted that a calculation of the total amounts of corrupt transactions is only part of the overall costs of corruption, which constitutes a major obstacle to reducing poverty, inequality and infant mortality in emerging economies.

Theological dimension

There is more to corruption than statistics, as Osvaldo Schenone and Samuel Gregg note in their essay, “A Theory of Corruption,” published late last year by the Acton Institute.

Christian theology, they point out, considers the root of sin to be in the individual’s heart and in the exercise of free will. Nevertheless, sin affects others, distorting the moral and social ecology within which all people live.

Schenone and Gregg observe that the Gospel calls on people to live and act justly toward their neighbors and to rectify any acts of injustice. Justice is not limited to merely following the rule of law. It also embraces living a virtue that helps us to act justly toward others in making choices.

Corruption violates justice not only in a formal sense of distorting the fairness of relationships and the fulfillment of contractual duties. It also violates the virtue and undermines basic bonds of trust between individuals, the political community and those entrusted with legal authority.

When corruption becomes widespread, particularly in societies suffocated by excessive bureaucracy or incompetent government, it can be difficult to persuade people of its evil, the authors say. The tendency arises to see corruption as something necessary to allow the economy to function. But this attitude brings with it a serious moral deficiency, leading society to lose sight of the fact that some actions are wrong.

Toward integrity

Overcoming corruption is not an easy task, but the last part of the essay puts forward some ideas to help overcome this problem. Corruption can appear to be an integral part of a culture, but cultures can be changed. Man is not subordinated to culture; rather, our actions create it, argue Schenone and Gregg. Thus we should constantly ask of ourselves: What is the image of man underlying a culture, and what space does it leave to the truth of faith and the interior life?

Our individual choices can be informed primarily by materialism, or they can be influenced by a moral ecology grounded in a vision of the person as the image of God. In the latter case we can be more certain that our choices will lead to the realization of moral good, the authors contend.

The family and the Catholic Church have indispensable roles in helping to shape culture toward this moral good. The family is the most important formative influence in the lives of most people. And the Church spreads the message of the Gospel.

Christians, therefore, need to emphasize that reducing corruption is not just about following rules, but rather embodies a commitment to certain moral goods. It may be unrealistic to expect Christians to eliminate corruption in societies where it is particularly widespread. Yet, their efforts may well diminish corruption.

Steps in this direction were in fact taken in South Africa earlier this year. In a Feb. 6 press release the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference announced that it joined with eight Christian denominations to launch a campaign titled “Churches Against Corruption.”

“The Church is concerned that our young democracy runs the risk of allowing corruption to become part of culture. Corruption threatens the integrity of young minds, and forms the basis for a new form of oppression,” noted the Catholic conference, which is constituted by the bishops of Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland.

Schenone and Gregg concluded their essay contending that a sustained effort of prayer, preaching and persuasion can encourage people to avoid engaging in corruption. Such an effort, they added, can also lead to a change in the hearts of people and in the moral culture of a society. A feat that would help rich and poor nations alike.

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