There’s No Panacea for Corruption. So We Can All Stop Pointing That Out.

I’m taking another one of my periodic breaks from semi-serious commentary to make a mostly frivolous, slightly snarky point about the way we talk and write about corruption. Here’s my plea for today:

Every sensible person would presumably agree that there’s no panacea (that is, no single cure-all) for corruption. But our community appears to have developed—perhaps as a kind of reflexive, semi-defensive verbal tick—the tendency to declare that whatever anticorruption measure we happen to be talking about is “not a panacea” for corruption. Thus we are told repeatedly, for example, that:

  • Transparency is not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, here, and here);
  • Anticorruption agencies are not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, here, and here);
  • New technologies are not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, here, and here);
  • Democracy is not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, and here);
  • Privatization is not a panacea for corruption (see here and here).

Other things that the literature has declared “not a panacea” for corruption include higher public sector salaries, international courts, more women in the public sector, EU membership, codes of corporate ethics, unexplained wealth orders, and economic sanctions.

Since we all agree (or should agree) that there is no panacea for corruption, we probably don’t need to keep saying that any individual measure is not a panacea. Of course it isn’t. There isn’t one. Done.

While this post is mainly meant as a gentle admonition (with the finger pointed at myself as much as anyone else) to be more mindful about trotting out tired clichés and banal statements of the obvious, I do think there’s something intriguing about how many of us working in this field (again, very much including myself) so frequently feel the subconscious compulsion to add what would seem to be an unnecessary caveat when discussing this or that anticorruption measure. Why do we do this? Perhaps we recognize the all-too-frequent tendency of advocates to make exaggerated claims on behalf of their preferred reform, and we want to reassure our audience that we are more nuanced and sophisticated? (I imagine, for example, that those advocating for greater use of modern information technology don’t want to be mistaken for naïve techno-utopians.) Or perhaps we worry, perhaps with justification, about managing the expectations of our audience, lest the failure of a proposed reform to eradicate the corruption problem be treated as evidence that the reform didn’t help, leading to greater cynicism and frustration?

Then again, maybe there’s no subject-specific explanation. Maybe it’s just a bad habit. In any event, I propose that we retire the phrase. Please allow me to be so bold as to officially declare in this blog post, on behalf of the anticorruption community, that there is no panacea for corruption. So, going forward, we don’t need to say it anymore. Just throw in an unexplained hyperlink to this post as soon as you introduce the anticorruption measure you want to discuss, without feeling the need to insert the “not a panacea” qualification. You’re welcome.

The Swahili Word for Transparency, and the Fallacies of Linguistic Determinism

I recently attended a workshop where participants were debating, among other things, why reform initiatives to promote government transparency and other anticorruption measures in places like sub-Saharan Africa had such a (seemingly) poor track record. In the course of the conversation, a well-known tenured professor declared – as evidence for the proposition that cultural incompatibility explains much of this apparent failure – that “there isn’t even a Swahili word for ‘transparency.’”

I was flummoxed and expressed some confused skepticism, but this professor (who, by the way, is a white Englishman whose CV does not indicate that he speaks Swahili or has ever done any research in a Swahili-speaking country) insisted that this was not only true, but was strong evidence that government transparency was an alien concept in Swahili-speaking societies.

It wasn’t a terribly important part of the discussion — more of an aside — and the conversation swiftly moved on. But the assertion that this linguistic lacuna demonstrates a significant cultural gap–one with important policy implications–has been bugging me ever since, not least because it reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s absurd claim that “in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” (There is, by the way: svoboda.) So just in case this specific claim about Swahili, or linguistic arguments like this more generally, are an emerging meme in the anticorruption commentariat, I thought it would be worth a quick post to try to nip this nonsense in the bud.

So, what’s wrong with the claim that there’s no Swahili word for transparency? Three things: Continue reading

Watch Your Language: Not “Everyone” Is Corrupt–Anywhere.

I’ve noticed something about the way many people (including me) sometimes describe the severity of the corruption problem in many parts of the world: When calling attention to the problem of widespread, systemic corruption, it’s not uncommon to hear people say—usually in casual conversation, occasionally in more formal presentations—that in this or that country, or this or that government or department, “everyone” is corrupt, or “everybody” takes bribes, or similar. I’m sure I’ve used this or similar language myself, without even thinking about it. And I understand that when most people say things like “everyone in [X] is corrupt,” they don’t mean that literally. Yet I find myself increasingly bothered by statements like this, for several reasons: Continue reading