Ever since a friend from African posed me a question: Why in Africa French colonies are far more corrupted than British colonies? I have been pondering on the interrelationships between corruption and colonization. However, my observation of corruption data like Corruption Perception Index for former French and British colonies does not reveal any significant difference. Equal numbers of French and British colonies are found to be corrupt. May be my friend from Africa differentiate better between British and French colony. However, as I look into corruption and colonization more interesting picture do emerge.
A study on acceptance of bribery and gift-giving by Prof Johann Graf Lambsdorff from Passau University, Germany speaks with conclusive evidence that, among others, that there is a higher level of corruption in countries that once were colonies in the last 100 years. However, careful reading of interrelationships between corruption and colonization will reveal that much of the corruptions in developing countries have in fact originated or passed on to them from developed countries. Developed North/West played two roles in instigating corruption in developing South/East. First, they act as the suppliers of corruption. This comes from multinational companies looking business opportunities for their products in developing countries. In the process, they indulge in bribery and corruption. Much of the present-day anti-corruption drive is rooted to the competition for corruption in international trade. Realizing this problem of corruption in international trade, a way back in 1977, US enacted a law against corruption. Second, the developed world also acts as demand-side of corruption. By providing safe havens for the corrupt leaders from developing world and a safe deposit for their ill-earned wealth, developed north is as much liable for breeding corruption in the developing world. It is estimated that as much as 15 percent of Swiss GDP constitutes “shadow economy”. From this figure one can fairly imagine the scale of illicit money being stashed away in Swiss banks. Therefore, it is grossly mistaken to assume developed world as clean world and developing, the corrupt one. The developed world does not have any moral superiority when it comes to corruption.
Prior to their colonization, many of the African countries do not even have a concept of private property. Once the concept of private property gets introduced into the system corruption started to sip into the society. It is believed that the introduction of money by the colonizers lead to the corruption of the traditional African values and culture. The colonizers corrupted African culture through the introduction of money and the formalization of gifts. There is a theory explaining how colonization breeds corruptions in developing countries. Colonization basically means exploitation of resources; therefore, corruption becomes a convenient tool to exploit resources in developing countries. Even as at present time, one can find a strong correlation between the availability of valuable mineral deposits or natural resources in a country and the extent of corruption in that country. This goes by the hypothesis called “resource curse”. The process of colonization exerts two rounds of corruption effects. First, as just mentioned above, corruption becomes a convenient tool to exploit resources. Second, for the groups rebelling against the colonizers, “breaking of the laws of the colonizers” becomes a norm or a legitimate activity.
We can draw lessons from the cases of Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and India. Corruption in Indonesia started with the Dutch colonization. The Dutch colonial masters is said to have deliberately paid low wages to the public servants thereby forcing them to resort bribery and corruption. Similar incidences were noted when East India Company in 1757 paid subsistence wages to its employees thereby forcing them resort to private business and extortions. This is how process of colonization carried along with it the germs of corruption.
In South Asia colonization helped to breed and institutionalize corruption. During struggle for independence, it was a norm for the freedom fighters in India to break the rules of the colonial masters. Unfortunately, this norm of breaking the rules seems to have lived even after the exit of colonial masters. If corruption comes with the arrival of colonizers, their exit leaves behind a trail of corruption.
However, this is not the end of the story. If colonization is the source of the malady, in many instances it has also become a source of remedy. The success stories of Hong Kong and Singapore on fighting corruption are ascribed to their colonial rulers. There is an explanation that, other than to their colonial masters, a colonial state is accountable to none and hence can afford to have harsh anti-corruption measures. Even to date, it is the authoritarian regimes that are notorious for taking harsh anti-corruption measures. It is not a case of colonization per se, the efforts to fight corruption in our own case get boosted only during active rule of King Gyanendra (2002-2006). This implies that democratic structures are too sterile to take strong anti-corruption measures. The adoption of British meritocracy system in the civil service is another factor contributing to controlling corruption in Hong Kong and Singapore.
However, Philippines provide another contrasting picture on effects of colonization on corruption. During American colonization, the bureaucracy of Philippines was regarded as one of the efficient systems in East Asia. However, with the exit of Americans, it turned out to be a highly corrupt one. The relationships between corruption and colonization is really perplexing.