WDR 2017: Revisiting Corruption, Capture and Clientelism

It was one of those cold misty mornings that you only get in North India in January, and I was being dropped to the airport at 5 a.m. by the hotel cabbie, and we were  lamenting the state of the world (ALL Indians always lament the state of the world when passing the time with total strangers…). Anyway, it emerged that despite working for a luxury hotel run by what is considered India’s most ethical business group, the driver is paid such a paltry salary that his family just makes it above the poverty line. And this despite being at the hotel’s beck and call 24/7. I am sure his father would have blamed his poverty on bad karma from an earlier life, and as a younger man, this gentleman would have ranted about discrimination (in arguably the world’s most discriminatory and unequal society), but in Modi’s India he blamed it on one single thing – corruption.

There is of course, a growing school of thought which believes that neo-conservative regimes like the current Indian government come to power by promising development, and blaming the preceding governments for holding the country back because of widespread corruption. Come elections, they promise to eradicate corruption through ‘good governance’. Their concept of governance (based on the classic World Bank model) is however, more like corporate governance with all emphasis on efficiency, grand announcements and fast but centralized decision-making, with the citizen-centric governance promoted by UNDP, totally forgotten along with effectiveness, participation, responsiveness, and accountability. Naturally, in this context, the entirely business-centric scales like Transparency International’s to measure corruption, or WEF’s ease of business are given far too much importance, and the UN reports on social indicators generally neglected. Consequently, wealth qua wealth is worshipped and accumulated, enterprise rewarded, bad debts incurred, and the informality and inequality in the country keep rising.

This is how the very core neocon agenda undermines itself, because as the social analyst Jong-Sung You argues in his latest book, inequality produces several causal mechanisms that serve to embed corruption within democratic structures and make them difficult to eradicate. Linking economic to political power, he explains how the ruling elite in an attempt to safeguard its own interests, buys political influence through both legal and illegal channels in order to ensure their interests are over-represented in the corridors of power. High rates of inequality thus compound the problem of state capture by powerful figures in politics, business and the media, with the result that democratic processes of accountability are undermined by corrupt practices.

Further, Dr You points out that an unequal state with enfeebled democratic infrastructure is ripe for persistent and prevalent clientelism, forcing the poor to become dependent on corrupt chains of patronage for the provision of particular benefits like medicine, education and nourishment, which would otherwise be considered entitlements in a functioning democracy. These chains of patronage on which the poor rely, are then mobilized during elections to buy votes and, in the bureaucracy, to buy favours. Importantly, this illustrates that the role elections should play as a mechanism for accountability ceases to function under high conditions of inequality; elections meant to fight corruption, become a means to legitimize a corrupt regime. And so we have come full circle.

Maybe it is the work of thinkers like Dr Jong-sung You which has begun to influence that bastion of free enterprise, the World Bank. Their latest World Development Report is a refreshing recant on their earlier version of governance and now considers governance as “… the process through which state and non-state actors interact to design and implement policies within a given set of formal and informal rules that shape and are shaped by power. This Report defines power as the ability of groups and individuals to make others act in the interest of those groups and individuals and to bring about specific outcomes.”

So there you have it: in the end, the institutions of governance do eventually subserve the demands of the most powerful in society. The WDR 2017 acknowledges that the power asymmetries in society can greatly undermine development and policy making and implementation because they lead to exclusion, capture, and clientelism. This in turn leads to the power of elite bargaining in a modern democracy, and its impact on policy-making and eventually, development.


As part of the World Development Report 2017, the World Bank, in collaboration with the V-Dem Institute, has conducted expert surveys to generate cross-national indicators that enable comparison of who holds bargaining power and how they wield this influence. The surveys cover more than 100 years of data in 12 countries across six regions and their findings are very interesting, as this graph shows:

WDR 2017 Elites.png

Some observations:

  • Power in Russia, Turkey (and Rwanda!) is apparently centralized totally to the exclusion of all other actors. So what happens when the mighty One is no more?
  • Do Brazilians really feel that the media there are such powerful players? Perhaps, especially after the media hounding of a democratically elected President…
  • Are foreign governments and international donor agencies really so powerful in Sri Lanka, or is there a defence angle India should worry about?
  • Local Governments, Organized Labour Unions and Civil Society Organizations seem to wield power only in Bolivia making it some sort of last refuge for the socialist idealist, and
  • Finally, India is true to the South Asian archetype, where power is centralized in the National Executive, National legislature, the Judiciary, national political parties and the All-India Civil Services – a permanent bureaucracy bequeathed by our erstwhile rulers to the entire sub-continent. Noticeable too is the absence of influence at the local or municipal level, despite the 74th Constitutional Amendment on decentralization, dating back to 1992, and that goes a long way in explaining the pathetic state of India’s burgeoning cities…
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