Thursday, July 10, 2008

Corruption is the West's problem

Newsnight a couple of nights ago had a focus on African corruption and whilst I wasn't able to watch the entire report what I did see made me squirm a little. We had a series of (African) people who essentially seemed to be calling for the end of aid until the continent's corruption problem was sorted out.

I think this is rather a problematic view. Partly because it amounts to punishing the poor twice over, but also because it seems to ignore the very basic fact that Western companies, and to a lesser extent Western governments, actually contribute to this corruption and actively collude in it. With the current disparity in wealth the West is able to bend these governments to its avaricious will.

Prem Sikka points to the recent transparency international report (pdf), which demonstrates serious concerns over the willingness of Western governments to deal with corporations. "Behind the facade of mission and corporate social responsibility statements, companies and their executives seem only too willing to indulge in bribery, corruption and a variety of antisocial activities that affect the life chances of millions of citizens. The government's inertia provides positive encouragement."

Arms and oil companies are, of course, the worst offenders but it would be wrong for us to think that this is the only area where it is us that is the corrupt and anti-democratic partner. As Sikka says "Bribery and corruption destroy social fabric. Yet governments and regulators continue to see bribery and corruption through the prism of corporate interests and do little to inconvenience them."

You only have to look at this story from Paraguay where a US anti-corruption NGO has been found to be riddled with bribery, giving contracts to its "friends" and other assorted dodgy practices. The West assumes it has a moral superiority over Third World countries - but in a great number of cases it is the cause (direct or indirect) of the lack of democracy, and that's without bothering with some sort of unconvincing history lesson. We have the wealth to look respectable, but it does necessarily not make it so.

Having said that my usual note of caution is this, just because Western companies and governments are complicit in acts of corruption, anti-democratic activities and greed it does not mean that these vices are not to be found among the native population of the third world countries who, to state a rather banal truth, are just like us - it just means both sides are complicit. Dictators should face accountability for their crimes, as should their Western backers.

The racism seems quite tangible when we look at the case of Simon Mann. The British Press appears to be quite sad that this leader of an armed gang of mercenaries who were preparing to violently overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea (supposedly with the nod from the US and other governments) has been given a hefty sentence.

The theme appears to be that these Africans don't understand you can't lock up a *white* man in some dirty prison over run with *black* men, and more than one report has suggested he could serve his time here. Why? If he was good enough to try to overthrow their government he can face their justice can't he? It was a risk he willingly took in the hope of robbing the country three ways from Sunday.

I mean, they might put their dark hands on him. An Englishman and an officer! Hilariously one report outlined his service in the SAS and then asked so how could he have become a violent, anti-democracy mercenary... well, possibly the two things aren't so different? Maybe one thing led to another - who do you think supplies the world with arms and mercenaries? Peace loving Norway?

If this had been Africans plotting to overthrow the Welsh Assembly these same papers would be baying for the blood of those who have got off Scot free, and possibly demanding the bombing their country of origin. Let's just be glad that Equatorial Guinea does not have the access to weapons that some of our more reliable customers for weapons do.

When one of "ours" tries to overthrow a government and help himself to the oil wealth all we hear is complaints that they've been nasty to him, but anyone with dark skin only has to mention that the system of government here is not so great and it's cue for much arm flapping and freakish shrieking. Let's end the double standards.

If we're serious about building democracy in developing nations then we have to root out the rot at home. We help bring Mark Thatcher to justice, we end the complicity between arms companies and the government and we bring the corporate criminals to book. We can't continue treating serious corruption as some sort of African boys own adventure - where the lives don't matter and the wealth is just ours for the taking.


Aaron said...

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of the world we live in.

Duncan Money said...

I think a lot of stuff on corruption in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly amongst African elites, misses the point.

It could plausibly be the case that African elites in many states are simply not interested in running or ruling a modern state so ideas of transparent or honest government ae unlikely to be on their agenda.

In Angola, for example, it's evident that the elites are quite content running several large overshore oil fields, areas of the capital city and a successful oil firm, SONANGOL. They couldn't care less what happens in the rest of the country so I doubt the halting of aid to Angola would bother them in the slightest.