GUEST COLUMN In the shadow of good will

Corruption poses a major roadblock in developing countries

Development agencies say they are concerned about corruption. A large part of the West’s donations of aid to poorer countries intended to do good ends up in the pockets of ruthless officials with no qualms about stealing from their underprivileged fellow citizens.

The theft is extreme: people are left to die because emergency food supplies are siphoned off and sold. Just look at the USAID packages openly displayed in marketplaces, the infrastructure projects built to shoddy standards or failing to materialize altogether when finances are compromised by kickbacks, and the management of facilities developed with aid money being marred by the endless leakage of bribes to government personnel.

It has been this way for decades, and the agencies must take the blame for running development systems so long on failed principles. Despite awareness of widespread corruption in many developing countries, funding agencies set businesslike terms for giving aid on the naïve assumption, if not necessarily belief, that they will be honored. Superficially, beneficiary countries may take elaborate steps to give the impression that correct administrative steps are taken. In nations saddled with chronically dysfunctional bureaucracies, it may seem that papers are being processed, stamped, clipped as necessary. But such appearances are often just a shell.

I worked recently in two developing countries that requested World Bank funds to upgrade public transportation systems. In one case I was able to make headway by dropping traditional approaches to project planning and bringing together people of good will to form a consensus through bargaining. The process produced initially good results, and plans were made both to upgrade bus services and reform management systems.

I got a warning sign that all was not well, however, when the efforts of a consultant appointed to advise on bus specifications and ensure corruption-free procurement systems were sabotaged. Next, I learned that managers in a number of poorly-performing departments had gone behind the scenes to pressure a Minister to block reform processes that threatened their influence.

Shortly afterwards, personal harassment began with a sudden move to throw me out of my office and place me in an airless closet, and a decision not to renew my contract grounded on fears that I would eliminate mismanagement. Subsequent arguments in the Cabinet by those who wanted me to stay were met with anti-Semitic remarks about me that I took as my cue to leave. The projects to upgrade bus services have been abandoned, attempts to improve governance weakened, and the money invested by the World Bank largely wasted.

In the second country, where I also suffered harassment and removal for my efforts, government departments that administer public transportation are riddled with corrupt practices. Deliberately making official systems so complicated that they are unusable is a common ploy used to extract corrupt rewards. The official system to obtain a driver’s license is so complex and time consuming that there is little choice for most people but to take the shortcut route and get a fake one.

Because of this reality, drivers of public transportation vehicles have little or no training, are dangerous on the road, and are frequently the cause of tragic accidents that result in loss of life.

Licenses to operate buses on specific routes are another matter — there is no alternative to paying bribes to the licensing commission, and that is far from the end of the road. Between police corruption, an industry association linked to the government, and groups of roaming thugs, money is extorted from local bus companies until they are almost at the point of ruin. There is no money to either train drivers properly or to perform maintenance, and buses dilapidated to such an extent that they appear to be wrecks operating dangerously and with extraordinary overcrowding.

A World Bank project aimed at improving public transportation — or accomplishing results in any other sector for that matter — cannot proceed successfully without insisting that such irregularities be resolved. The bus industry cannot be told to improve itself while its resources are being stolen. The likelihood, unfortunately, is that elegant plans for upgraded transportation will be produced without engaging issues of corruption directly. Existing corrupt processes for licensing and operation of public transportation will make it impossible to establish high-quality, professionally-managed services and will lead to project failure.

In his book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly makes the critical point that development agencies have a way of giving developing countries big plans when their government bureaucracies have no motivation to implement them. Easterly calls instead for systems that build motivation through reward.

Singapore is the prime example where public sector transformation took place through professionalization and the introduction of reward for performance.

Similar changes are required where corruption endangers the future of developing countries. Accountable, independent, incentive-based organizations must be built, and the talented and honest must be rewarded for achieving results.

The corrupt form coalitions; the honest must do likewise, and development partners should focus on empowering them. Educated young professionals — some of them graduates of professional schools such as MIT’s — are often most open to reforms to promote integrity, but are kept distant from power. They must be brought to the table so their fresh ideas can be received and so these young people can be developed as builders of their nations’ futures.

Most importantly, development agencies must move from a focus on technical approaches to ones that direct government involvement in reflective efforts to identify and correct flaws in governance. Instead of telling governments what to do from the outside — a process that rarely builds the relationships of trust required for successful implementation — processes of consultation, introspection, debate, and consensus-formation must be invoked amongst those of good will. Every government has its honorable workers, even if their efforts are suppressed by the corrupt.

The hard part of enabling structural change is moving beyond enforcing it to having governments internalize it — while aid can and should be the bait, there has to be a local feeling of ownership for such ideas to succeed. Catalyzing such productive change and giving power to those who love and respect their nation must be the primary task of international development when working in countries afflicted by corruption, and doing this requires a change in direction by international agencies and their professional staff.

Jonathan E. D. Richmond PhD ’91 will present “Approaches to Professionalism in the Face of Mismanagement or Corruption in Developing Countries” in W20-307 today, as part of the Center for Transportation and Logistics Distinguished Speaker Series. Lunch will be at 12:15 p.m., followed by the talk at 12:30 p.m.