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In Too Many Countries, a Sinister Scourge of Corruption

By David D. Newsom / May 28, 1997



The collapse of Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko's regime focuses the spotlight again on the devastating effects of corruption on a country and its people. Zaire is not an isolated case. Newspapers are filled with examples of rulers and officials using their positions for personal gain; no country, including the United States, is exempt.

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Corruption is not hard to detect. Villas in Europe that contrast sharply with the deficits and poverty of a poor country are one indication. Conspicuous consumption far above the salary of a mid-level official is another.

The scourge is not new, but conditions today appear to have expanded the temptations. Leaders in newly independent countries faced for the first time the opportunities and pressures to enrich themselves and their families. Weak governmental structures did little to curb their excesses. The cold war offered possibilities of gain from both East and West.

People who were under communist rule are emerging, already skilled in the art of underground illegal transactions. Drug and crime syndicates around the globe use their enormous profits to buy protection and to launder money. Even in the US, practices relating to political campaign financing raise issues of corruption.

Some suggest that practices considered inappropriate in the US are established parts of other cultures. The ill-paid policeman in a poor country explains that his extra payment is essential to his livelihood. The person who achieves power as a president or cabinet minister insists that the expectations of gain from relatives and friends create pressures to divert official assets. Placing a percentage of a contract price in an official's private bank account or providing the official's brother with a share in an enterprise are seen as appropriate rewards for providing access to authority.

Yet, the scourge is sinister. Ostentatious extravagance undermines public confidence. Diverting a country's resources for the personal profit of those in power destroys the economy and retards development. Nigeria is a case in point.

An authoritarian ruler's determination to protect the fortunes of family and supporters impedes genuine political change. Corruption or suspicion of corruption has been at the base of revolutions in many countries in which the US has had substantial interests: Iran, Libya, the Philippines, and Nicaragua, to name just a few.

The situation is further aggravated by the difficulty of recovering the diverted assets. Even when assets are identified, successor governments face lengthy, expensive court processes to regain them - as in the case of the Marcos fortune in the Philippines.

The US and its Western allies are not immune from responsibility in the spread of corruption. France has liberally rewarded those in Francophone Africa prepared to preserve Paris's interests. During the cold war, Washington gained strategic benefits and looked the other way while friends such as Mobutu and Ferdinand Marcos amassed great fortunes at the expense of their peoples.

Efforts were made periodically by the US, European governments, and international financial institutions to stimulate internal reforms, but diplomatic dialogues about corruption are not easy. If they do not remind the outsider of the benefits of the collaboration, rulers will deny or rationalize their actions.

With the Corrupt Practices Act, the US has sought to insulate its own businesses from bribes and favors, but not without generating complaints that the law puts US business representatives at a competitive disadvantage.With the agreement on May 23 of the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to end payoffs to foreign officials, other industrialized countries are now following the US lead.

A growing democratic trend may reduce the degree of excessive corruption. The spotlight of a free press can discourage politically vulnerable ostentation. But the US could, perhaps, do more. Its annual human rights reports focus on how governments treat their peoples. Maybe the time has come for the US to issue annual reports on how governments rob their peoples.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.