Corrosive corruption

2008-02-04 00:00

If the recent United Nations anti-corruption conference in Bali needed a symbolic event, it was provided by the simultaneous death of ex-President Suharto of Indonesia. His ill-gotten gains from running the country as a family business may have amounted to as much as $35 billion. This is an all-time record in a world league of infamy that now accounts for a staggering sum of more than $1 trillion per annum.

The obvious results of corruption are individual enrichment at the expense of ordinary, often poor, citizens; distorted decision making and skewed development. Perhaps the most damaging long-term consequence is lowered public confidence in national institutions and democratic processes.

This is evident in the current conflict in Kenya where rampant corruption, unchecked by state structures, is blamed for mass deprivation. Indeed, Africa has produced some notoriously venal and unscrupulous leaders — Mobutu Sese Seko of the DRC and Sani Abacha of Nigeria each looted their countries of over $5 billion.

African democrats should applaud attempts to give teeth to the UN Convention against Corruption agreed to in 2005. Those responsible for its implementation are looking for increased international co-operation regarding prosecutions and the recovery and return of looted national assets. One top official has vividly described corruption as a communicable disease that is spiralling out of control like a pandemic.

Although a global phenomenon, it is particularly damaging to developing countries, especially since economists estimate it can depress growth by up to one percent per annum. Corruption, like the tango, requires two participants. For every crooked Third-World leader there is an array of multinational companies illegally feeding greed. It is for these reasons that the UN wants to give a public face to activity that usually operates in the shadows.

South Africans have good reason to think long and hard about this. The arms deal was signed at much the same time as the government was warned about the current electricity crisis. Was power supply ignored because the purchase of weapons had potential for kickbacks? Was this an example of the tendency of corruption to produce decisions out of kilter with real national interest?

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