Zero-tolerance to corruption

At a meeting of the members of the World Bank in Singapore beginning Sept. 17, politicians from dozens of countries are scheduled to discuss whether they are for corruption or against it. A surprisingly large number will be for it. Not that they will be asking for bribes themselves, you understand: these are men and women of the highest integrity. Rather, they will say that if aid to the Third World sometimes means taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries, then the World Bank should stop being so agitated about it.

They will be directing their anger against Paul Wolfowitz, the neocon architect of the Iraq War, who has agitated many people in his time. Since becoming president of the World Bank last year, he has earned the opposition of member governments and many among his staff for his zero-tolerance of corruption. When Wolfowitz wasn’t satisfied with the audits of the state oil company of the Congo, he suspended debt relief. He has also suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia and taken a hard look at the cautionary tale of Chad. In the late nineties, optimists claimed the destitute sub-Saharan state could provide a model for the poor world when the World Bank agreed to fund a new oil pipeline on condition that the Chadian government agreed to spend revenues on health and education. The local dictator reneged on the terms, so Wolfowitz suspended aid.

Wolfowitz is a conservative who, during his career, has championed democracy in the Philippines and Indonesia, feminism in Iran and opposition to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, causes that were once the preserve of the liberal-left.

That aid money shouldn’t go to bloated elites is something the liberal-left supports. Indeed, it was James Wolfensohn, Wolfowitz’s liberal-minded predecessor who first said that the World Bank must take corruption seriously. Wolfowitz unnerves people because he behaves as if he means it and throws up intractable dilemmas in the process.

The paradox of aid is that the more money a country needs, the more likely it is to be stolen. The Republic of Congo and Chad have some of the poorest people on earth. What should you do for them? If you send aid, the odds are that the elites will steal money meant for others. If you don’t, you lose the chance that some at least will get past the thieves. If governments or charities make a fuss, they risk being thrown out of poor countries. If they don’t, they collaborate with the political systems that keep poor people poor. Last week Hilary Benn, the British International Development Minister, did much better when he acknowledged the problem and tried to find a way out by emphasising good governance.

He opposed Wolfowitz by asking: ‘Why should a child be denied education; why should a mother be denied healthcare; or an HIV positive person Aids treatment, just because someone or something in their government is corrupt?’ Rather than suspend loans, the World Bank should help build responsive and accountable governments. The trouble for Benn is that regimes that inflict the greatest suffering don’t want to be responsive. For Sudan’s genocidal rulers and the kleptomaniacs of Zimbabwe, reform would mean loss of power. —The Guardian