About a decade ago, the world witnessed a corruption eruption. As democratic winds swept the world, the dirty deals of once unaccountable dictators and bureaucrats came out into the open. During the Cold War, kleptocratic dictatorships often traded their allegiance to one of the two superpowers for that superpower's countenance of their thievery. With the superpower contest over, such corrupt bargains dried up. And, thanks to the information revolution, if there was even a hint of corruption at the highest levels, it quickly became global news.
Once people learned that so many politicians had been on the take -- often in cahoots with business leaders -- it was only natural that there would be a public outcry for a "war on corruption." Countries enacted anti-corruption legislation, corporations adopted stern codes of conduct and nongovernmental organizations such as Transparency International were launched to "name and shame" countries into action. National watchdog agencies, complete with powerful anti-corruption czars, sprouted everywhere.
From Germany to Peru to South Korea, corruption scandals entangled seemingly untouchable former heads of state, and around the world an unprecedented number of top government officials and business executives were ousted or jailed. If you were running for office and challenging a powerful incumbent, you almost certainly ran a "clean hands" campaign, labeling your opponent as a corrupt fixture of the old order. For those in the trenches, the crowning event of this war was the 2003 U.N. Convention Against Corruption, endorsed by more than 100 countries.
Unfortunately, the recent reports from the front lines are not encouraging. "The last 10 years have been deeply disappointing," says Daniel Kaufmann, one of the leading experts on anti-corruption efforts. "Much was done, but not much was accomplished. What we are doing is not working."
In fact, it may be hurting. Today the war on corruption is undermining democracy, helping the wrong leaders get elected and distracting societies from facing urgent problems.
Corruption has too easily become the universal diagnosis for a nation's ills. If we could only curtail the culture of graft and greed, we are told, many other intractable problems would easily be solved. But although it is true that corruption can be crippling, putting an end to the bribes, kickbacks, and payoffs will not necessarily solve any of the deeper problems that afflict societies. In fact, this false belief can make it harder, if not impossible, to rally public support for other indispensable public efforts. Necessary tax reforms, for example, become impossible to pass when the general assumption is that any new public revenues will inevitably evaporate in corrupt hands.
The corruption obsession also crowds out the debate on other crucial problems. A country's bankrupt educational system, malfunctioning hospitals or stagnating economy cannot compete with headlines about a corruption scandal. These problems may be aggravated by corruption, but they are created by conditions that often have little to do with the behavior of dishonest government officials. Even when such social ills rise to the top of the national agenda, the fight against corruption tends to inform the public debate. Inevitably, the public's understanding of what it would take to tackle other national priorities becomes clouded by the corruption obsession.
But perhaps the worst collateral damage caused by this fixation is the political instability it can create. Electorates already have many reasons to be disappointed with their elected officials. The corruption curse feeds people's unrealistic expectations about what it would take to improve their standard of living and set a country on a more prosperous path. Popular impatience, exacerbated by the belief that nearly all those at the top are lining their pockets, unreasonably shortens the time governments have to produce results.
Since 1990, 11 Latin American heads of state have been impeached or forced to resign before the end of their terms. In each case, corruption was a factor. Although these oustings were often justified, in a number of cases corruption was just an excuse to get rid of a weakened president; the country's lack of progress was widely interpreted as simply another manifestation of corruption. It fed the fiction that if voters could simply get rid of the current crop of venal officials and find an honest leader, progress would follow. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Russia's Vladimir Putin all came to power in part because of public disgust with the corruption that preceded them. Yet all three countries remain corrupt and are still waiting for their promised progress.
There is no doubt that corruption is a scourge. But there is also no doubt that many countries crippled by corruption are not sinking. Hungary, Italy and Poland are just a few examples of countries where prosperity has coexisted with signifi- cant levels of corruption. China, India and Thailand are not only not sinking, they are prospering, despite widespread corruption.
Of course, it would be vastly better if all these places had an honest and independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law and a sound educational system. But these are outcomes, not prescriptions. They represent hard-won progress from sustained efforts at all levels of society, typically over generations. Simply telling these countries to shake off the shackles of corruption -- as foreign investors, politicians, leaders of multilateral institutions and well-known journalists so often do -- is worse than no advice at all.
The writer is editor of Foreign Policy magazine.