Corruption in Africa will not end until civil society repairs itself
In the 2002 Kenyan presidential campaign, Mwai Kibaki promised his countrymen an end to the corruption that had defined Kenyan leadership for decades. The messageresonated with voters and earned Kibaki an astonishing 62% of the vote. But after eight years, corruption in Kibaki’s Kenya seems only to have worsened.
As Maina Kiai, former head of the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission, told the HPR, “It is now a free-for-all, no accountability.” Kenya’s experience with corruption is not unique; indeed, the problem of African corruption has become a cliché. Of course, it would be wrong to sweep too broadly with generalizations. As Daniel Kaufmann, an anticorruption expert with the Brookings Institution, told the HPR, “there are 53 countries in Africa, and the extent of corruption and the quality of governance varies greatly.”
Nonetheless, Kenya’s experience offers insight into the predominant causes of African corruption: excessive tribalism, as well as what Kiai calls a “personalization” of public goods and public services. These problems are home-grown and must be home-solved. Western nations can assist the struggle through smarter direction of foreign aid and innovative new forms of assistance. But to truly reduce corruption, Africans, and Kenyans in particular, will need to confront the salience of ethnicity in politics, and reshape civil society from the ground up, emphasizing political education and empowerment.
Tribal ism and Sources of Corruption
In Kenya, tribalism creates and defines governmental corruption. Michaela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, told the HPR that corruption in Kenya, as in other African nations, “takes a shape which is extremely ethnic.” Politicians routinely operate as ethnic patrons, doling out favors and benefits to members of their own ethnic communities. But this behavior does not strike leaders or their constituents as improper.
According to Wrong, “they only mind about corruption when they’re excluded from it. It’s only bad as long as it doesn’t benefit your own community.” Chantal Uwimana, the regional director for Africa and the Middle East at Transparency International, echoed Wrong. She told the HPR that in many African nations, “people think that corruption is a way of life,” rather than a harmful process to which they all contribute. Few individual actors perceive the broader consequences of a political system based on patronage.
Ethnic politics in Kenya thus consists of a reciprocal relationship between politicians and voters, which makes the problem extremely difficult to remedy. “In a sense,” said Kiai, “the leadership question in this country is a chicken and egg story.” Ethnicity pervades all aspects of politics, including “the psychology of elections.” An aspiring leader can gain no political traction, and negotiate no political deals, without gaining local support, which inevitably entails appealing to his ethnic community. Voters, in turn, come to expect and solicit bribes from their candidates. As Harvard political scientist Robert Bates explained, “The way the political game is played makes it almost impossible not to have politics that we would interpret as being ethnically driven.”
The Impact of International Aid
Some commentators, notably the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, argue that international aid may actually be fomenting corruption throughout Africa because of these ethnically-based motivations. According to Moyo, aid money makes African politics a high-stakes playing field and thus contributes to the corruption it seeks to eliminate. The structure of foreign aid may even exacerbate the problem if it diminishes a government’s accountability to and reliance on the people.
Still, if all that is true, international aid only aggravates the problems already inherent in the patronage system of politics. Kiai questioned the existence of any direct causal link between aid and corruption. “What [aid] has done,” Kiai said, “is freed up taxpayer resources for the personalization by public officials.” Wrong, too, emphasized that while “aid itself may not be stolen,” the simple fact that more money is coming into the government’s coffers “does make it possible for the government to steal elsewhere with impunity.” Problems of accountability arise not because of aid per se but because of where aid frequently goes. “The waste,” Kaufmann said, “can be dire among those official donor agencies that channel the bulk of their assistance through the central government.”
If international aid does not inherently cause corruption, the international community can indeed help the anti-corruption cause, both by giving more responsibly and by refusing to cooperate with corrupt leaders. Instead of channeling aid through governments, anticorruption organizations such as Transparency International advocate donations through citizens or local groups. Assistance can come in non-monetary forms.
Kiai praised one international effort to recognize honest officials and said that “the international community [should] continue white-listing, rather than black-listing, these people.” Kenyans are well attuned to their leaders’ international reputations, and when a leader is forbidden entry to the United Kingdom or the United States, domestic condemnation inevitably follows.
Solutions from Below
Ultimately, the Kenyan experience shows that government-led efforts are most successful in curtailing corruption when they fundamentally change the way funds are allocated at the grassroots. As Kaufmann argued, governments must “work on improving governance across the board, which is hard both in terms of politics and institutional capacity.” Progress requires governments to demonstrate a real commitment to the enforcement of otherwise theoretical advances.
Kenya provides a positive example of such changes: its Constituency Development Fund. The CDF impartially provides money to parliament members for development projects among their constituencies, which has created, according to Kiai, “a direct link between members of parliament and their constituents directly around resources.”
This link, in turn, means “a lot more people who are conscious of anti-corruption … and becoming anti-corruption watchdogs in their own way.” As the success of the CDF suggests, the most effective movements to end corruption will be those that engage the citizenry directly. “A lot more emphasis on a bottom-up approach, of empowerment of the community, understanding and taking action against corruption, is critical,” Kiai said.
The mere passing of laws that formally protect citizens’ rights will do nothing to change the civic culture. Through programs that encourage education and civic engagement, the populace can learn to challenge leaders and hold them to their promises. While government reforms can help curb corruption, ultimately, according to Bates, “you have to have a civil society group that says no más, this has got to stop.”
Isabelle Glimcher ‘13 and Timothy Lambert ‘11 are Contributing Writers.
Photo Credit: Flickr Stream of futureatlascom
Corruption in Africa will not end until civil society repairs itself