Corruption Should Be a Laughing Matter

Corruption is a serious matter—it sucks away public finances, undermines good governance, ends livelihoods, and consumes lives. It’s therefore understandable that many anticorruption activists center much of their work on getting people to take corruption seriously. But despite the underlying gravity of the problem, sometimes a surprisingly effective way to fight against corruption is to make people laugh about it.

Consider Alexei Navalny, the Russian activist whose attempted assassination, arrest, and imprisonment underscore just how much Moscow has recognized his power. One of the striking things about the explosive videos that Navalny has released to expose the Putin regime’s corruption is that the videos aren’t just shocking—they’re funny. People enjoy watching them because of their biting humor—and while they’re laughing, they also learn about Putin’s siphoning of public funds for his own benefit.

There are plenty of other examples of anticorruption activists effectively using humor as part of their campaigns. To mention just a few:

  • Last summer, Lebanese activists staged a fake—and deliberately comical—“funeral” for the Lebanese currency (the lira), as a protest against the cronyism and mismanagement that “killed” the Lebanese lira and tanked the country’s economy. A video of the “funeral” gathered over 10,600 views on Twitter and brought renewed international attention to an anticorruption protest movement that at that point was approaching its seventh month without much success.
  • A Chinese artist known as Badiucao has used satirical art to bring attention to the ruling party’s political corruption, including a famous “promotional poster” for the TV series House of Cards, with Xi Jinping sitting on the throne instead of series villain Frank Underwood. His art helped spark renewed criticism of the regime and is credited with inspiring political cartoons throughout Hong Kong’s democratic uprising against China’s controversial 2019 extradition bill.
  • In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky was elevated from comedian to President of Ukraine by campaigning on an anticorruption platform. Comedy was a key part of his 2018 campaign—instead of traditional rallies, he held performances by comedy troupes skewering the corruption of the incumbent regime.
  • Back in 2004, the then-mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus pushed back against the city’s petty corruption through antics like inducting 150 “honest” taxi drivers into a fictional club called the “Knights of the Zebra.”

These and other examples illustrate an important lesson for anticorruption activists: Notwithstanding the seriousness of corruption and the harm that it causes, humor can be a powerful tool in spreading an anticorruption message. As a rhetorical device, humor has a few distinctive strengths:

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Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

Corruption and Deadly Accidents

After last week’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut—which killed over 150 people, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless—Lebanese citizens are rightly demanding a full investigation of the incident and accountability for those responsible. The official reports so far have stated that the source of the blast was an abandoned Russian cargo ship carrying a large quantity of ammonium nitrate; it is not clear why that vessel and its dangerous cargo, which arrived at the port in 2013, were allowed to remain for so long despite repeated warnings about the dangers. Some commentators have expressed skepticism about the official account, and suggested that the blast was caused by illegal munitions being smuggled through Lebanon. We do not yet know, and may never know, the full story.

Much of the coverage of the incident has emphasized the widespread corruption of the Lebanese government, and many Lebanese protestors have emphasized this same theme. It is not yet clear whether corruption had much directly to do with this incident. The official account so far suggests negligence and mismanagement rather than intentional malfeasance. But the instinct to suspect corruption is entirely understandable, because there is ample evidence that corruption is often a significant contributing cause of many deadly accidents. Indeed, while much of the public discussion about the costs of corruption, particularly by donor agencies and international institutions, focuses on macroeconomic outcomes (such as per capita income, GDP growth rates, and economic inequality) or on other measures of human development (such as education, literacy, and health), corruption is also a significant contributing cause of avoidable accidental deaths. Continue reading