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Adjustment alone is not a cure for corruption

On January 13, a special conference entitled “Africa 200” was held in London. It was sponsored by the African Development Bank and Africa Analysis, among others. Among the speakers at the conference were Babacar Ndiaye, President of the African Development Bank, Roger Riddell of the Overseas Development Institute and several bankers. Themes that dominated the conference which was looking at Africa’s economic prospects between now and the end of the decade were the emergency of the private sector as the primary motor for economic growth, the continent’s need for more effective economic cooperation on both a regional and sub-regional basis. Richard Hall, Publisher of Africa Analysis -a fortnightly confidential newsletter published in London- comments on the conference.

A topic significantly ignored by speakers at the recent London conference entitled “Africa 2000″: The road to Recovery” was corruption. Even Sir William Ryrie, head of the International Finance Corporation, in his predictable call for the privatisation of everything in sight, did not care to say that corruption is one of the greatest disincentive for foreign investors who fancy taking a stake in African assets. Nor did he suggest that privatising the continent’s countless parastatals might make them less corrupt (a possibility, but no means a certainty, of course).

Yet everyone having the least interest in Africa’s economic future knows that kickbacks, “commissions”, rigged contracts and many other kinds of financial chicanery are the unspoken obstacles to progress. The World Bank got its courage up a couple of years ago and began urging the need for “good governance”: this was double talk for multi-party democracy, which has duly become the rallying-call on all sides.

Will democracy root out corruption? It has become already apparent in Africa that when a government changes, by ballot or bullet, the crooked practices of the ousted regime are often weakly adopted by the professed “clean” newcomers. The familiar wheeler-dealers are also immediately back in there, nestling up the victors and denigrating their former friends.

All this may sound like excessive cynicism -or worse, it may appear to treat Africa as a special and hopeless case, inherently more inclined to corruption than the rest of the world. Far from it: the city of London where the “Africa 2000” conference was held, has seen examples of corruption in the past few ears which must make the most crooked businessman and bureaucrats in Lagos, Nairobi or Kinshasa breathless with admiration. Britain’s shady stockbrokers, dodgy insurance executives and bent merchant bankers can give Africa’s racketeers a run for their money in the corruption stakes any day.

That also goes for America, where the Mafia is just the most blatant manifestation of corruption, and Japan, where one government after another has been brought down by financial dirty work.

What makes corruption different -and much less affordable- in Africa is that its countries only have infant economies. Like human infants, they are more vulnerable to infection, more likely to sicken and die. In America, Japan or Britain the exponents of big-time corruption are (if caught) gently sidelined. “What’s wrong with greed” demanded Ivan Boesky, who dealt in billions and briefly went to gaol. He came out smiling, likewise, the crooks in Britain’s vast “Guinness Scandal”. The effects on the societies to which they belonged were marginal.

This is far from being the case in Africa, where economies lack the depth, strength and stability to shrug off corruption. It quickly permeates every level of society, because what goes on at the top is much more visible than in countries where power is exercised with greater subtlety and the institutions have deeper roots. Secrets are far harder to keep in Africa. Soon the bribe-taking of the leader is imitated, right down the chain of authority to the humblest customs official, the soldier on the roadblock even the orderly in the hospital.

The worsening poverty in which so many Africans are trapped only adds to the tendency towards corruption. This reality at the grass roots is rarely recognised by those economic theorists who argue that “if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working”. If structural adjustment means paying civil servants starvation wages, you just worsen the vicious spiral.

What has to be squarely faced is that there will not be much progress in Africa without moral regeneration. This is not to say that the continent needs to be swarming with evangelists. But some serious thinking needs to be done.

The biggest conundrum is how to overcome the old “grab-it-while-you-can” syndrome -perhaps deriving from the underlying fears of impermanence. A numbered Swiss bank account has for too long seemed more secure and reliable than a rickety new nation, even if it is your own. A first duty in breaking with this pattern lies with the politicians in power, since they set example.

The swing towards open democratic systems should help to keep political hands out of the public purse. Parliament will become watchdogs rather than lapdogs. Newspapers will be more free to expose financial log-rolling and graft, instead of being mouth-organs of party hacks. It is a chance for a fresh start.

Just as crucial is fostering a new attitude among Africa’s business executives, and that brings the argument back to “Africa 2000” conference, where one of the speakers was Jonathan Frimpong-Ansah, executive secretary of the massively funded Capacity Building Foundation in Harare.

The foundation’s role is to lift the quality of African managers, in both the state and private sectors. It must be hoped that the foundation will teach, as a first principle of good management, the need to reject corruption.

The foundation should also try to convince its main sponsor, the World Bank, that economic policies have a direct bearing on this immense problem. Honesty is so much easier on living wage.

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