Corruption as an Empty Signifier – Politics and Political Order in Africa
By Lucy Koechlin
CORRUPTION AS AN EMPTY SIGNIFIER
1. ‘Corruption ruins lives: take action!’ 2
In the past two decades, a general consensus has emerged condemning corruption as one of the most damaging factors for development. corruption is seen to undermine the cohesion and strength of whole societies, to threaten precarious economic and social progress made in developing countries, and to increase the vulnerability of lives and livelihoods of the poor.
What is new is not only the wave of concern but that the condemnation of corruption transcends all boundaries and sectors. the battle cry to ‘combat corruption’ is sounded by allies as well as formerly bitterly opposed combatants, from NGO activists and grassroots movements to CEOs of multinational enterprises and heads of government, from powerful high-income OECD countries to conflict and poverty-ridden southern countries.
This is all the more surprising as for the greater part of the post-war period corruption was generally seen to be an a priori neutral symptom of changing societies, a kind of ‘growing pain’ of Westernising bureaucracies and industrialising economies. although there was the odd moral tremor denouncing the vicious and retarding effects of corruption,3 until the late eighties most forms of corruption in the developing world were generally accepted as inevitable if not in all cases desirable side-effects of modernisation.
corruption, “a welcome lubricant easing the path to modernisation” (Huntington 1969: 69),4 was seen to serve specific functions, both economically and socially.
conceptualising corruption as a lubricant smoothing political transition, supportive of economic growth and as a facilitator in overcoming obstructive bureaucracies in third world countries fitted very neatly into the export-driven agenda of international trade and industry. for decades corruption was understood to be not only necessary to do business in southern countries but even mutually beneficial.
“corruption reduces uncertainty and increases investment” (leff 1964: 8), as an influential Harvard scholar posited in 1964.5 a particularly telling example is the bribing of foreign public officials by international business companies: until the late nineties, it was not only perfectly acceptable for northern enterprises to give bribes, it was also perfectly normal to expect foreign (southern) officials to take bribes.
In other words, corruption was a generally accepted, legal and even tax-deductable standard practice in many OECD countries—business as usual.
In the meantime, however, attitudes towards corruption have changed dramatically. since the end of the Cold war, we have been witnessing a radical change of tide: whereas before the prevailing understanding of corruption was to view it as a relatively harmless phenomenon, since the late eighties and early nineties it is viewed as the exact opposite: a serious threat undermining democracy, growth and equity. one indicator of this renewed interest in corruption is the wave of academic literature discussing corruption in relation to economic growth, political development and social cohesion.6 Given the “eerie silence” (Theobald 1999: 497) that prevailed before, a “corruption eruption” (Naim 1995) took place in the nineties.
With new theories and empirical case studies on corruption flourishing and cross-fertilising each other, the past three decades have greatly increased our understanding of different forms, causes and effects of corruption. typologies of corruption have been refined, transcended