Accessibility links

'Systemic Corruption' A Daunting Challenge In A Globalized Era

  • Robert Coalson

In several countries around the world, corruption is no longer just slipping a bill into somone's pocket, but a network of politics and relationships, which is more difficult to root out.

In several countries around the world, corruption is no longer just slipping a bill into somone's pocket, but a network of politics and relationships, which is more difficult to root out.

In a recent interview with the Russian government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," local Transparency International head Yelena Panfilova described how an official made "a barely noticeable nod of his head" over dinner at a swank Moscow restaurant, as a result of which a major company picked up a lucrative state contract and the official's daughter "won a grant" to study free at Oxford University.

On the surface, this would seem to be an isolated incident of corruption. But actually it is the visible tip of a network of informal ties and relationships that experts have in mind when they speak of "systemic corruption."

Corruption experts estimate that some 40 to 60 countries around the world suffer from systemic corruption, ranging from all of the post-Soviet countries to places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Systemic corruption cuts across key state institutions, runs from the top to the bottom, and is fundamentally political in nature. University of Colorado political scientist Christoph Stefes, who studies corruption in post-Soviet countries, says systemic corruption is qualitatively different from traditional notions of case-by-case malfeasance.

"You have all of these networks where essentially corruption is the glue that keeps these informal networks, these patrimonial, clientelistic structures together," Stefes explains. "So, there corruption is maybe just the expression of informal institutions that counteract the formal institutions of democracy."

He adds that corruption and the availability of compromising material -- what Russians call "kompromat" -- is the perfect glue for building and maintaining these informal networks.

Leaking Into The West

Some analysts have argued that similar dangers are increasingly arising in Western countries, which have traditionally been seen as having institutional mechanisms capable of preventing isolated instances of corruption from taking broader root in the system.

In an interview with RFE/RL in August, Janine Wedel, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of "Shadow Elite: How The World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, And The Free Market" described this "shadow elite" in the United States and other democracies as playing "multiple, overlapping, and not fully disclosed roles" in politics, the media, think tanks, and business.

"[The shadow elites] are less transparent and less accountable than powerbrokers of the past," Wedel warned. "And we are in a much more dangerous era than we have been in the history of the modern state."

The dynamics of globalization and information technologies in recent decades have opened doors through which corrupt practices are able to spread from country to country. Stefes explains that in Russia, one of the most economically and politically powerful of the "systemically corrupt" countries, "organized crime penetrates businesses around the world," turning businesses into "money-laundering machines," creating "a different business ethic."

Foreign Or Domestic?

However, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Daniel Kaufmann, who formerly served as director for governance and anticorruption at the World Bank, argues that such companies are merely continuing the pernicious historical practices of many Western multinationals, which he notes contributed mightily to corruption in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. He argues that governments must avoid blaming outside influences for their corruption woes, adding that "at the end of the day, the most important influences on corruption in a country are domestic."

"Sometimes there is a tendency to exaggerate the foreign influence in order to apportion the blame elsewhere," Kaufman says. "So, while multinationals and other countries may exert an influence, that is no excuse not to do the domestic homework, which is the most important issue.

Kaufman says that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is a good example of an official scrutinizing his own country "rather than blaming the corruption on foreign influences."

Viral Corruption

Combating systemic corruption is far more difficult than fighting isolated corrupt practices. In fact, experts agree that systemically corrupt regimes often mask or even expand their corruption by carrying out "anticorruption campaigns" that merely shake up the personnel in corrupt networks without touching the networks themselves.

Kaufmann agrees that "you don't fight corruption by fighting corruption":

"Essentially," he says, "[fighting corruption] requires a revamping of the system very often, major reforms of institutions, changes of leadership, and so on."

Increased transparency and protections for whistle-blowers, which are the traditional anticorruption remedies emphasized by organizations like Transparency International, are "necessary, but insufficient" means for combating systemic corruption, Kaufmann says.

The University of Colorado's Stefes agrees, adding that whistle-blowing may help in the West, but not when there is a "system of corruption."

Kaufmann directs attention to the "tougher challenges" of dealing with the capture of the state by corrupt, kleptocratic elites.

A key problem in rooting out systemic corruption is that it demands a considerable amount of domestic political will. One way out could be the emergence of a sort of Mikhail Gorbachev figure who prospers politically within the existing system but then seeks to fundamentally alter it after coming to power. But as the example of Gorbachev shows, such figures often lack the power to carry their ambitions to their conclusion.

In countries that still have some functioning democratic processes, Kaufmann argues, a national leader can emerge with a mandate to undo a corrupt system. He cites the examples of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and Saakashvili in Georgia.

Mass Support

Another key obstacle to reforming systemically corrupt systems is the effect of such corruption on public attitudes. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has noted that the break-up of the Soviet bloc led to the monetization of corruption. Whereas everyday Soviet-era corruption -- such as a dentist who gives special treatment to a university official to secure a place for his daughter -- was seen almost a form of community-building social capital.

In contrast, Krastev argues, the post-Soviet practice of cash bribes increases social stratification and resentment among those who are unable to keep up. Sociological studies have shown that in such cases, the public ironically supports -- even demands -- a stronger role for the state in the economy and in their everyday lives, creating ideal conditions for still more systemic corruption.

One recent study by a team led by Harvard economist Philippe Aghion concluded: "Distrust generates demand for regulation even when people realize that the government is corrupt and ineffective; they prefer state control to unbridled activity by uncivic entrepreneurs."

Coming to grips with spreading systemic corruption is a daunting task. Stefes, however, is encouraged by the active involvement of international organizations from the UN to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to the G20 and the European Union. "The fight is on, essentially," he says, and he suggests that the International Criminal Court could be expanded to take on major cases of globalized corruption.

Kaufmann also refuses to be overly pessimistic when asked how the dynamics of corruption have shaped up over the last two decades. While he acknowledges that "on average it has not gotten better," he says among the "average" there is a widely varying scale.

"You have quite a few countries that have made significant inroads, including in Africa, like Liberia and Ghana and others; in Latin America, like the cases of Chile and Colombia and others," he says. "But for every country that has improved, there is another that has deteriorated, like the Zimbabwes and the Afghanistans and many others. And then there are many in the muddled middle which have not made progress."

RFE/RL correspondent Christopher Schwartz contributed to this report.
  • 16x9 Image

    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

Show comments