Rick’s last couple of posts (here and here) critiqued Bill Gates’ claim that, because corruption in development aid projects as relatively small-scale (allegedly around 2%), it’s therefore a manageable “tax” on aid. Rick asserted (correctly, in my view) that the corruption problem is much bigger, and that the 2% figure is essentially a made-up number. Over at the Huffington Post, Huguette Labelle, the Chair of Transparency International, also responds to Gates. Most of what she says is pretty standard (which doesn’t mean it’s not right). But near the end of her post, she takes a striking position that’s worth thinking about a bit more critically: She argues forcefully against “[a]ccepting low levels of corruption as a pragmatic fact of life,” and instead advocates “[z]ero-tolerance for corruption.” This is quite different from Rick’s argument; Rick pointed out that corruption in development aid projects is not in fact low-level. But Ms. Labelle’s “zero tolerance” stance implies that even if Bill Gates were right about the facts, he would still be wrong in his conclusions. “Zero tolerance” of corruption certainly sounds good. But what exactly does it mean?
One possibility is that “zero tolerance” of corruption just means that we should always view corruption as undesirable. But even if we put aside for the moment the fact that certain forms of corruption may be justifiable (like bribing a Nazi official to escape a concentration camp), this doesn’t seem like a very productive understanding of “zero tolerance.” After all, Gates seems to agree that corruption is bad (he doesn’t “tolerate” it in the sense of thinking it’s not a problem at all). And his view is probably the norm. So I don’t think that’s what Ms. Labelle means when she talks about a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption.
A second possibility—which takes the “zero tolerance” language literally—is that all feasible measures to minimize corruption must always be used. But that can’t possibly be right. At some point, the costs of fighting corruption exceed the costs of the corruption itself–perhaps by a lot. After all, the only surefire way to reduce corruption in foreign aid programs to zero would be to eliminate the programs themselves. Even stopping short of that extreme, anticorruption measures consume scarce resources that could be used for other purposes. In this, corruption is no different from any other bad thing that we would like to eliminate. We may say we have “zero tolerance” for murder, child abuse, disease, discrimination, and so forth. But in practice every society “tolerates” all of these horrible things–not in the sense that we ever view them as acceptable, but rather in the sense that we don’t devote all of our resources to fighting them, at the expense of everything else. So I don’t think this is what Ms. Labelle can mean either.
Which leaves a third possibility: perhaps “zero tolerance” isn’t meant as a (banal) normative position or as an (unrealistic) policy prescription, but as an attitude. Mr. Gates may agree with Ms. Labelle that corruption is bad. And Ms. Labelle, despite her rhetoric, may agree with Mr. Gates that just because some amount of corruption exists in an aid project, that’s not a reason to cancel the project or to spend all available resources on squeezing out the last little bit of corruption. The real source of disagreement seems to be that, from Ms. Labelle’s point of view, Mr. Gates just doesn’t take corruption seriously enough. “Zero tolerance” means, not literally zero tolerance, but rather making anticorruption a high priority. That’s my best guess.
I can sympathize—I’m more with Labelle than Gates on this one—but I do worry a bit about the “zero tolerance” language. It sounds good, but there’s a risk that strident, almost self-righteous rhetoric about “zero tolerance for corruption” can obscure the fact that there really are difficult and complex trade-offs involved in fighting corruption, and that the benefits of various anticorruption measures always need to be compared to their costs.