What makes the corrupt tick?

Jean-Pierre Méan

By Jean-Pierre Méan 
Published on Tuesday December 11, 2018

One of the often cited causes of corruption is that in some (or more than some) countries, public officials need bribes to complement salaries that are hardly sufficient to cover their basic needs.

This may be true to some extent, but it is equally true that, in those countries, public officials enjoy the privilege of having a salary (admittedly not always paid in time and sometime outstanding for extended periods) in an environment where large segments of the population do not.

Whether or not complementing one’s salary is needed to cover living expenses or not, the mere opportunity to extort payments from fellow citizens without hardly risking to be caught may be too tempting to resist. It is also a fact that in many countries, those lucky enough to have landed a relatively stable employment are under enormous pressure to permit  their relatives to share in their gains. I had e.g. a colleague in an African country who had a good position with a multinational company and who went heavily into debt to commission a whole building to provide living quarters for his extended family.

The disconnection between needs and corruption is, however, of a different quality in large-scale corruption, the corruption linked to large infrastructure projects, public procurement or access to natural resources. 

When the police raided the home of Najib Razak, the former Malaysian Prime Minister, the goods it seized includedcash in 26 currencies with a total value of $28.6 million, 457 handbags, 423 watches, 234 sunglasses as well as twelve thousand pieces of jewelry, including 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,100 bangles, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 1,600 brooches and 14 tiaras (this is in addition to financial investments and bank accounts in Malaysia or abroad). It is not conceivable that all this money, accessories and jewelry were kept in Najib Razak’s home for his or his wife’s occasional use.

In his 31 years in office as President of Indonesia, Mohamed Suharto is thought to have amassed a fortune between $15 and $35 billion. This is between some $500 million and over $1 billion a year. In order to spend this money, one would have to spend between $1.5 million and $3million a day which would be a more than daunting task, even if working full-time at it.Accumulating wealth and objects beyond what one may use and enjoy must respond to another motive than just improving one’s quality of life.

Accumulating wealth and objects beyond what one may use and enjoy must respond to another motive than just improving one’s quality of life. This motive may well be reflected in the phrase coined by the 19thcentury British politician Lord Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “ »Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. »

Indeed, whoever is in power may develop a feeling of impunity and who wields absolute power is accountable to nobody and will develop a feeling of absolute impunity. This leaves a wide open space, not to fulfill one’s needs, but to inflate one’s ego boundlessly. This, ultimately, is what is behind these extravagant accumulations of money and trivial objects and what can only be checked by an elaborated governance system making sure that all those in power are accountable for their actions and are not given free rein to develop absolute power.

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