Monday, November 22, 2010

the permissible evil

Development advocates at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank claim corruption is a pervasive evil in most emerging economies – both a cause and consequence of poverty – in urgent need of eradication. Some may blame its existence on poverty, immorality, or even culture. Here are some news: regardless of its origins, corruption isn’t unique to the “developing” world and although nobody is keen to admit, the practice cannot and, arguably, should not be annihilated.

Transparency International (TI), the “global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption” which recently launched the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, claims to challenge “the inevitability of corruption, and offer hope to its victims.” The ideal is noble and evokes other grand Plans, like the call to end world poverty, which, after over US$2.3 trillion devoted to the cause in recent decades, remains far from being achieved.

Critics say corruption is one of the main obstacles to much needed progress around the world. Can this assertion be universalized? Take the case of Brazil. Outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT) – built on a reputation of clean government – has been involved in repeated corruption scandals since da Silva took office in 2003. Amongst the most notorious is the 2005 Mensalão (“big monthly payment”), involving allegations that prominent PT members, including former Chief of Staff José Dirceu, orchestrated a scheme to pay congressmen monthly allowances of around US$17.5 thousand to secure votes for legislation.

While half of congressional deputies were kicked out as a result of Supreme Court indictments and investigations in 2007, over a dozen individuals involved in the affair remain in the legislature. Although the party fiercely denies any link to the president in this and other corruption scandals, it is hard for any well-educated and well-informed individual to believe da Silva ignored what was going on under his nose.

It is no secret to Brazilians or international observers that corruption is endemic in the country. The world’s eighth largest economy, Brazil received a score of 3.7 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (highly clean) in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index, placing it at 69 out of 178 countries ranked from least to most corrupt. Unsurprisingly, nearly three quarters of countries studied scored below 5.

Critics claim corruption produces devastating impacts on men, women and children. And yet, Brazil’s internationally admired pro-poor policies for which da Silva is frequently praised (think Bolsa Família, which provides financial aid to families on condition that children attend school and are vaccinated), helped lift around 10% of the population out of poverty and increase primary school enrollment to above 95%. The PT’s economic policies ensured Brazil was one of the last countries to enter and first ones to leave the global recession, and are pushing the country towards becoming the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020. Who can soundly argue Brazil is fairing badly?

Transparency International purports to want to raise awareness about the practice and diminish apathy and tolerance of corruption. The organization’s bottom line: “corruption hurts everyone”. While rhetorically powerful, the statement is factually inaccurate. It is a pervasively and openly corrupt administration that propelled nearly 20 million Brazilians into the market economy. Politicians definitely did not suffer in the process, and the people seem to be very content with increased, albeit limited, benefits.

On October 31, 55.7 million voters elected Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s handpicked successor, to become the country’s first female leader. Elections came in the midst of allegations that Rousseff’s “right hand woman”, former Chief of Staff Erenice Guerra, was implicated in a corruption scheme involving contracts to favor her son’s consulting firm and that prominent PT members had broken banking secrecy laws of members of the opposition Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). Even so, da Silva’s “chosen one” easily won and he is set to leave the presidency with above 80% approval ratings.

Anyone familiar with Brazil knows of the popular jeitinho brasileiro (“Brazilian way”), roughly described as the “art of working things out” and often involving monetary transactions. This is true for the young boy guarding your car on the streets of Rio de Janeiro to the president of the Workers’ Party sitting in Brasília.

The country slipped from 124th to 127th place in this year’s World Bank “Doing Business” report, which assesses factors like the easiness of opening, running and closing firms around the world. If you don’t have an ally in the government, all you have to do to bypass painfully slow bureaucracies, is hire a despachante, a middleman who gets official documents pushed through “suspiciously quickly”.

You can object to the abhorrent convention, but if you do not know how to swindle, it is unlikely you will get anything done in Latin America’s giant. Reality is, you cannot eliminate an integral part of a well-functioning machine, especially one that is being successful at moving a country of continental proportions forward.

Claiming to fight for eradicating corruption might fulfill moral aspirations for a more equal and just world. But when it comes to realities on the ground, priorities quickly shift. Maybe the problem isn’t with corruption as a practice in itself, but with politicians who live out it while denying their people’s most basic needs. So the real lesson may be that, if you do it, just make sure you do it well, and the world may very well allow you to slide by.

Please note this article was written as an exercise on arguing for a view WHICH I DO NOT HOLD. In other words, defending the abhorrent practice of corruption.

No comments:

Post a Comment