More on Corruption and Growth, and the Importance of Checking Linked Material

In my post last week, I went after a bunch of recent blog commentary that asserted there wasn’t much evidence that corruption mattered for development (and that also asserted the allegedly disproportionate focus on corruption was a “fetish” of self-satisfied Western countries). My emphasis in that post was on presenting the evidence that corruption is indeed a serious problem, one that citizens in developing countries care about. But I didn’t say much directly in response to the evidence that the targets of my screed (Christopher Blattman, Michael Dowdle, Jason Hickel) had offered for the claim that corruption’s not all it’s cracked up to be as a development problem. Of the posts I went after, Blattman’s made the most effort to ground the corruption’s-not-so-important claim in academic research. So I think his most detailed post on the subject deserves closer scrutiny than I gave it in my original polemic. (By the way, Blattman also included an interesting direct response to my post here; my reply is in his comments section.)

After reviewing Blattman’s post and the research he cites (and links to) in support of his argument that there’s little evidence that corruption matters very much for economic growth, my conclusions are largely unchanged.  Indeed, I think that the academic papers on which Blattman relies tend to undermine his point more than they support it.

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Yes, Corruption Is Bad for Development. No, Corruption Is Not a Western Obsession

Recently there has been a spate of commentary in the blogosphere that revives a set of tired old canards about corruption and development — the related claims (1) that the focus on corruption and governance in the development discourse is misplaced, because there isn’t a lot of evidence that corruption matters much for development, poverty reduction, etc.; and (2) that anticorruption is a fixation of wealthy, mostly Western countries, because it enables people in those countries congratulate themselves about their moral virtue and to look down on habits and practices in the poor, benighted South. Recent examples include Chris Blattman’s posts on his blog (here, here, and here), Michael Dowdle’s contributions to the Law & Development blog (here and here), and Jason Hickel’s post on Al Jazeera English, though there are others as well.

Sigh. Do we really need to go through this again? OK, look: Yes, there are still lots of unanswered questions about corruption’s causes and consequences, and its significance for various aspects of economic development. And yes, some anticorruption zealots have sometimes over-hyped the role of corruption relative to other factors. But the overwhelming weight of the evidence supports the claim that corruption is a big problem with significant adverse consequences for a range of development outcomes. And the evidence is also quite clear that the focus on corruption as a significant obstacle to development comes as much or more from poor people in poor countries as it does from wealthy Western/Northern elites.

A blog post is not the best format for delving into a very large academic literature on the adverse impacts of corruption. And so the posts to which I’m responding might be forgiven for generally failing to provide much evidence in support of their claims that corruption is relatively unimportant for development, and largely a Western obsession. But, let me at least take a stab at trying to move the conversation beyond unsubstantiated declarations to some assessment of the actual evidence, starting with the impact of corruption on development.

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