Bill Gates on Corruption in Development Projects: Is This How He Ran Microsoft? (Part II)

In an earlier post I showed that Bill Gates’ supposition that only 2 percent of expenditures in development assistance projects were lost to corruption was wildly off the mark.  I also asserted that such lowball estimates are a major hurdle to more effective aid programs: When corruption losses are lowballed, so are the resources devoted to combating corruption.  If losses are 2 percent of the total budget, then it makes little sense to spend 4 percent of the budget trying to prevent them.  But if losses are 20 percent, then 4 percent spent on audits and investigations is a miserly sum.  If losses are closer to 40 percent, then spending 4 percent borders on criminal negligence.

So where did Gates get the 2 percent figure? It turns out that the likely source for that figure illustrates not only how casually influential people sometimes throw around baseless numbers, but also the perverse incentives that development programs sometimes face to downplay the seriousness of corruption in their projects.

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Bill Gates on Corruption in Development Projects: Is This How He Ran Microsoft? (Part I)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has emerged as a major force in the development community – thanks not only to the $28 billion (yes, billion) the Foundation has donated to improve the lives of the world’s poor, but to the license it gives co-chair Bill Gates to speak to development policy. After all, as they used to say of the brokerage firm E.F. Hutton, when a billionaire speaks, people listen — particularly one who gives billions away each year.

Not surprisingly, the letter he and spouse Melinda wrote to serve as the Foundation’s 2014 annual report has been the subject of much attention — excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, quoted in hundreds of press stories and blogs. For the most part, the attention is welcome; the letter nicely puts the lie to several myths that pervade the discussion of poverty and development.  But in a section Microsoft’s founder wrote slaying some common myths about foreign aid, he perpetuates another myth, one that is a major hurdle to more effective aid programs: that corruption in these programs, though undesirable, is relatively minor and manageable. That’s just not true. Continue reading