SEATTLE, Washington — One of the most common arguments against allocating federal funds toward poverty-reducing programs in the developing world can be summed up in a single word: corruption. Corruption is seen as both a hindrance to solving global poverty as well as a legitimate reason to not fund aid programs. These arguments are by no means baseless; corruption in developing countries is a serious issue but it is an issue that is present in nearly every country in the world. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, at least 5% of the global gross domestic product is lost to corruption each year, which amounts to an astounding $2.6 trillion. These losses hurt the poor the most. However, the ever-present threat of corruption in developing countries does not provide sufficient justification to take little or no action in the fight against global poverty.
What Does Corruption Really Mean?
Although corruption is often used as a political scapegoat upon which the blame for a myriad of problems can be placed, it is not always clearly understood. Accusations of corruption are often hurled across political aisles when one party disagrees with the actions of another. However, corruption itself can be a bit tricky to define. A broad-reaching definition set out by Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization, is “The abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” The existence of corruption can have devastating political, social and economic consequences. It exacerbates pre-existing inequality, undermines the rule of law, destroys trust in government and reduces government effectiveness.
Additionally, although a corrupt label is often assigned to developing countries, hardly anywhere is immune. Corruption affects countries regardless of region, style of government or phase of development. The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to experts and business people. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) from 2019, the countries that received the worst rating for corruption perceptions are Venezuela, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia. However, the CPI makes it very clear that no country received a perfect “cleanliness” score. In fact, even the United States received 69 out of 100, where a score of 100 represents a country free of corruption.
Why Even Care About Corruption?
Corruption represents a threat to the effectiveness of aid in foreign countries and thus is a reason why many U.S. lawmakers are hesitant to send money overseas. For people fighting against poverty abroad, the allocation of funds from the U.S. International Affairs Budget significantly affects the work they do, which in turn affects the lives of the people receiving aid.
What Does Foreign Aid Corruption Look Like?
Corruption can take many different forms, therefore it is only logical to assume that it looks different depending on the unique national circumstances. Dr. Justin Esarey, an associate professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University researches and teaches classes on government corruption. Dr. Esarey told The Borgen Project that his description of corruption with respect to foreign aid in the developing world is, “some version of appropriating resources,” and gave the example of “money that was supposed to go toward building a road instead goes to bribes or other payments to government officials.” According to Dr. Esarey, patronage is an issue as well, meaning that “the aid money only goes to help certain people who support the government, and those who don’t support the government don’t get any help.”
Essentially, when aid money enters an already corrupt system, some of it is bound to get lost to corrupt activities and never reach those who need it. Dr. Esarey provided an example of aid money entering a country where civil servants are used to taking bribes for their services. The practice of bribery in this system is already well-established and therefore some aid money would be lost to bribery payments because “that’s how you have to get things done.”
Is Foreign Aid Corruption Worth the Risk?
The outlook with regard to corruption may seem pretty bleak. Well-meaning governments send aid to communities in need and the local government officials take money for themselves rather than allocate the resources to those that are suffering. This scenario begs the question, why even send the aid in the first place? If developing countries have such a problem with corruption, wouldn’t it be better to not send any aid at all, at least until they clean up their act? Not according to Dr. Esarey. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to pour money into programs that are just going to enrich the elite,” he said. “It’s actually to our benefit for other countries to do better,” said Dr. Esarey. He gave several reasons why, such as slowing global warming, promoting peace and protecting national security. He also echoed the argument made by many advocates of foreign aid. When people live a comfortable life and their basic needs are met, they are less likely to resort to violent extremism and can focus on larger issues. Dr. Esarey urged that “We need to help other countries do better so we can work together to solve our collective problems.”
Measures to Control Corruption
Over the years, countries and institutions have implemented measures that appear to have had a tangible positive effect in controlling corruption in foreign aid. Such measures include performance-based lending, strengthening the transparency and accountability of recipients and global anti-corruption campaigns.
All in all, the threat of corruption in developing countries cannot be ignored. However, it is not a sufficient reason to cut off funding to programs in these countries altogether. There are many organizations with measures in place to prevent aid from landing in the wrong hands. It is also an opportunity to further evaluate how aid is allocated and distributed so that the money and resources end up with those that need it the most.
– Addison Collins