The director of a new film about Africa explodes the myth that the continent is sick with corruption and needs the West to cure it.
In 2005, the Live 8 concerts pulled in wristband-wearing crowds and popstar-cum-saint Bob Geldof called for a million people to descend on Edinburgh to lobby the G8 meeting at Gleneagles (far fewer turned up). At the same time, I set out with a film crew and two angry young South Africans, Yolanda and Brendon, to examine the babble about corruption in Africa – and, more importantly, to question it.
What we found was a shocking process in which the failure of development in Africa, after decades of Western interference, was being blamed on African leaders putting their ‘hands in the till’. The result is an outlook which suggests Africans are incapable of resolving their own problems without ever greater levels of interference from Western governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
To coincide with the Live 8/G8 events, the UK’s Telegraph newspaper published a YouGov poll on Africa’s problems: 79 per cent felt corrupt and incompetent African governments had contributed most to Africa’s problems; only one per cent claimed to be very confident that donated money would be spent wisely; 55 per cent approved of Bob Geldof and his concerts; and 53 per cent believed outside agencies, NGOs and richer countries are best placed to solve Africa’s problems.
As our film, Corruptababble, shows, these same sentiments were expressed by the G8 protesters themselves. Our research and film shoots revealed the extent to which corruption has become a contemporary obsession. As Yolanda puts it in the film, Africa is ‘getting a hammering’ with these allegations. What’s behind this idea that Africa is peculiarly corrupt?
The background to an obsession
The idea that corruption is the main reason for continuing poverty in much of the world, particularly in Africa, has become an almost unquestioned ‘truth’ in discussions on development. Corruption, which is defined as the misuse of public funds for private gain, is now the central focus of the ‘good governance’ agenda promoted by donor agencies and international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank. As Lindsey Whitfield usefully outlines in her paper on ‘Aid’s Political Consequences’, donor countries, IFIs and aid agencies now regularly set targets for improving ‘governance’ and rooting out corruption and have linked these ‘reforms’ to the disbursement of aid, loans and foreign investment (1).
The failure of the structural adjustment programmes – austerity and privatisation measures imposed by the IFIs on poor countries – to produce sustained economic growth in the 1980s was explained by international agencies, and in particular the World Bank, as the product of a ‘crisis of governance’. During the 1990s, the Bank’s perspective on the role of the state within developing countries shifted from an emphasis on ‘rolling back the state’ to seeing the state as a key player in social and economic development under exacting Western tutelage.
Having privatised key industries and enforced massive cuts in public spending in line with the structural adjustment programmes, the Bank argued that governments in the poorest countries had failed to grow and reduce poverty due to ‘vested interests’ – that is, corrupt politicians backing predatory elites within public sector strongholds. According to this thinking, these governments had also failed to win over their populations to these policies and were suffering from a ‘democratic deficit’; such regimes could not be trusted to care for their people, and their electorates were deemed incapable of calling them to account. In other words, the governments of poor countries, having swallowed the West’s ‘structural adjustment’ austerity medicine, which made thousands unemployed, couldn’t get public backing for IMF and World Bank policies and were letting these institutions take the blame.
The World Bank’s unpopularity contributed to the Bank’s shift to what has become known as a ‘pro-poor’ agenda with ‘good governance’ as a key policy. In effect, the Bank shifted the blame back to poor country governments for its failed policies. NGOs piled in to help, with a newfound mission to build civil society and ‘give the poor a voice’. Resources poured into ‘capacity-building’ projects and patronising ‘participatory empowerment and advocacy projects’ on behalf of the poor. The lesson such projects were trying to teach the poor was that they should blame their own governments for their plight. To account for paltry handouts, the poor had to build village-level monitoring committees and report to unelected NGOs and Western donors. With Western grants and sponsorship, the unelected ‘good people’ of the aid and charity world were only too willing to help ‘empower’ the poor to deal with the ‘villains’ running their countries (that is, democratically elected governments) and to act as the conduit for funds.
As IFIs shifted towards this apparently ‘pro-poor’ agenda – imposing greater prescription and providing even less financial input – the finger could now be more easily pointed at African governments as the bad guys. The lack of growth and serious development could now be accounted for. Independence, it was argued, had spawned predatory elites who had devoured and squandered resources. Worse, development as we know it in the West was no longer deemed an appropriate course for poor countries. It became popular to argue that Western levels of development were not only impossible but undesirable, breeding greed and corruption and exacerbating inequality. The old belief in the developing world catching up with the West had apparently been a mistake, as these poor countries weren’t up to the task, couldn’t handle it and would do enormous damage to their culture, way of life and the environment if they tried.
The corruption/governance agenda conveniently explained Africa’s lack of development as a problem internal to Africa. To this day, this agenda continues to be used as an excuse for North-South inequality.
The assumption behind allegations of corruption is that huge amounts of aid and funds have been pouring into Africa in the first place. In truth, the total amount of aid to African countries in the past 50 years amounts to very little. Estimates suggest that 60 to 80 per cent of aid even in 2005 was destined for Western consultants, over-priced technical advisers and operatives. Very little goes to poor countries (2). Yet no amount of aid, it is claimed, would have ever made an impact as it was being siphoned off by corrupt dictators, irresponsible governments and unaccountable regimes. Giles Bolton, an ex-aid adviser for the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), produces a ‘cut out and keep guide to corruption’ in his book Poor Story in an attempt to allay fears of widespread corruption in Africa. Yet even his comments exemplify the demeaning sentiment that only the West has the moral authority to be judge and jury: ‘Systemic aid’s biggest difficulty is not the direct threat of corruption, it’s the political risk of supporting governments that turn out in various ways not to be truly committed to their country’s interests – what donors broadly call governance.’ (3)
Africa’s history, its lack of industry, low levels of productivity and inability to compete within the world economy, the complete dearth of investment, a massive fall in aid from the Sixties onwards, and the devastating impact of Western intervention can all be ignored – because according to the corruptababble, Africa’s problems are ultimately internal. The corruption agenda conveniently displaces the West’s responsibility for its disastrous development policies, a point the South African writer Barrie Collins makes eloquently in our film. The corruption obsession reinforces a notion that Western benevolence has been great but sorely abused. This is a fantasy which fits the West’s image of itself.
The collapse of politics
The preoccupation with corruption and good governance must also be set against the backdrop of a collapse in political belief. This is true both within Africa and the West. In Africa, the collapse of competing ideas of social change globally, the end of nationalist politics and pan-African vision, the pandering to donor policies and the failure of regulation and development, have no doubt helped turn people off politics. Within the West, growing cynicism, distrust, apathy and disbelief in thorough-going change have created a vacuum within which personal behaviour issues, how politicians conduct their affairs and an assumption of hidden agendas and dodgy dealings dominate political life.
In the absence of a broader vision and inspiring political leadership, it is hardly surprising that this distrust now dominates political affairs at a global level. As financial journalist and author Daniel Ben-Ami has argued: ‘Rather than the prevalence of corruption making people cynical about politics, the inability of politics to project a positive image fuelled an obsession with corruption. Whereas politics once centred on competing visions of how to organise society, today it has become a dull technical affair.’ (4)
Both in the West and Africa, it is assumed that those who go into politics are motivated more by personal advancement than a concern with society. With the collapse of politics, it is hardly surprising that assumptions of corruption catch on in countries where the majority of the population live in abject poverty. Having a job and owning a car are enough to raise questions of nepotism and dubious activity. As Brendon points out in the film, in the West we simply can’t believe that Africans in the developing world can ‘make it’, and those that do are assumed to have been up to no good.
The corruption obsession does the damage
There is a complete dearth of evidence that corruption is more or less prolific than in the past. The fact that this is simply assumed suggests that what is new is our obsession with corruption, not corruption itself. There is also no evidence of any correlation between levels of development and corruption. In fact, far from corruption holding back development and keeping people poor, it would be possible to draw the opposite conclusion from the figures. As Yolanda suggests in the film, China features way down as ‘unclean’ on Transparency International’s ‘corruption perception index’ and ‘bribery propensity’ tables – yet China’s growth in the past ten years, and its capacity to deliver millions from poverty, is unprecedented. In 2007, Denmark has the number one spot as ‘least corrupt’, according to Transparency International, while the UK is ranked at number 12, the Chinese are still very naughty down at number 72, and Somalia is at the bottom (5).
The perception of corruption may tell us little about a country’s development, but today’s obsession with corruption can certainly do a lot of damage. It justifies ever greater levels of interference and regulation and, in doing so, further undermines democracy and development. The corruption agenda provides donor countries and agencies with the legitimacy and credentials to wade in to domestic political processes in developing countries, prescribe policies and enforce transparency and accountability to the West. This can only undermine domestic political processes, making governments accountable to Western institutions rather than their own public.
This view of Africa, as unethical, incompetent and in constant need of Western supervision, is perpetuated by everyone from the Bono-Geldof bandwagon to free market stalwarts – and it directly impacts on aid flows and investment and justifies ever greater aid conditionalities. Few in the West questioned the draconian conditions applied to debt relief, for example, since it was assumed that when it comes to helping the poor the ‘West knows best’. The economics writer Stuart Simpson argues that, in fact, ‘debt relief’ was based on a moral agenda since the idea of ‘odious debt’ is a moral category that has come to take on pseudo-economic meaning. He points out in a recent study he carried out that a view of developing-world governments as incompetent debt addicts not only emanates from the governments of the G8 but comes from their critics, too: ‘The Jubilee Debt Campaign argues that debt has either been pushed upon developing countries or taken out by dictatorial or incompetent regimes. These are dangerous assumptions that paint a contemptuous picture of developing countries – namely, that developing countries are unable to govern their own affairs: they lack the sophistication and expertise needed; the governments and officials of developing countries are corrupt and cannot be trusted; and the failure of development is a consequence of vast sums going to waste. But above all, the most damaging charge levelled by these critics is that developing countries have had access to too much cash.’ (6)
In the name of greater transparency and accountability, donor countries and agencies now not only limit the cash available to the poorest countries, but effectively run their economies, too. Donors in Tanzania, for example, require the government to provide detailed accounts of their planned national budgets for donor approval before the budget has been approved by the Tanzanian parliament. This restricts the ability of parliament to influence the budgeting process and means that government spending is pre-determined in line with donor priorities rather than on the basis of local and national realities. In Ghana, World Bank officials have an office in the finance ministry and DfID consultants regularly sit in on parliamentary committees. The fact that these unelected intruders can interfere without question is both extraordinary and salutary. It is widely assumed that they know best and can be trusted, unlike the elected politicians of these countries.
Many campaigners find the corruptababble finger pointing at Africa distasteful, but their attempts to argue that ‘the West is just as bad’ don’t help. This ‘we are all bad’ argument not only misses the real problems holding up development; it also digs a deeper anti-political hole in which pessimism and distrust festers. This can only make matters worse for the developing world. If no one can be trusted to do anything, the future is bleak indeed.
The anti-corruption agenda serves as the perfect contemporary panic: corruption is apparently endemic yet invisible; corruption suggests anyone in politics is a potential criminal and no one except the politically untainted and the unelected – ideally celebrities – can be trusted; corruption upholds and reinforces notions of Western superiority and moralistic grandstanding by modern-day missionaries who are accountable to no one.
The obsession with corruption demeans autonomy and democracy and justifies new levels of regulation, interference and control. This obsession should be given no credence and its part in development discourse cannot be taken seriously. Rightly ridiculed in our film, the obsession with corruption is no more than childish babble.
Ceri Dingle gave a Battle Talk on ‘corruptababble’ and asked whether the film Bamako truly represented the authentic voice of Africans. Ghanaian filmmaker De Roy Kwesi Andrew asked why so many Britons are down on development and, in an interview with Brendan O’Neill, told Bob Geldof ‘You are not our messiah’. Phil Cunliffe reviewed the WORLDwrite film Fair Trade: The Bitter Aftertaste and Nathalie Rothschild reviewed A Letter to Geldof. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.
(1) See ‘Aid’s Political Consequences: The Embedded Aid System in Ghana’, Lindsay Whitfield October 2006 A CEG working paper, Oxford University
(2) 2005 Real Aid Report, Action Aid
(3) Poor Story: An insider uncovers how globalisation and good intentions have failed the world’s poor, by Giles Bolton, Ebury Press
(4) It’s cynicism that is corrupting politics, by Daniel Ben-Ami
(6) Debt and Development: Ghana – a case study, by Stuart Simpson, a WORLDwrite paper
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