Wholesale Corruption Causing a Democracy Deficit

When Canadian foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne touched down in Beirut in late August to survey the damage from the disastrous explosion that killed hundreds, injured thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless, he had a clear message for Lebanese President Michel Aoun: Canadian aid would be contingent on “real reforms” to the country’s political system. 

The blast not only tore a gaping hole in a city that used to be the jewel of the eastern Mediterranean. It exposed the glaring incompetence, negligence and corruption of its dysfunctional political elites who had allowed a massive stockpile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate to sit unsecured in the city’s harbour, despite numerous warnings from lower-level officials about the dangers. The explosion has served to amplify calls for fundamental political change that started in October 2019 from citizens who are clearly frustrated with an entrenched political class and democracy that does not deliver for them. 

Lebanon is an extreme example of the lethal threat that sectarianism, cronyism and endemic corruption can pose to countries and their political institutions, if left unchecked. But Lebanon is not unique. Many countries around the world confront similar problems with endemic corruption undermining political, social and economic stability. 

Authoritarian regimes can fall when a fed-up public takes to the streets in revolt against their corrupt leaders. Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is a case in point. Thousands joined protests in the country calling for his resignation following a disputed election involving massive voter fraud and manipulation by his government. Electoral malfeasance is not new in Belarus, but citizen frustration with how the government failed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a key factor. Bad governance and the effects of grand corruption are not found just in autocracies. The problem is just as acute for the world’s democracies, especially those that are fledgling and emergent. Many are being undermined by the pernicious and corrosive forces of corruption, which is causing the public to lose faith in their leaders and political institutions. 

In August, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who was democratically elected in 2013, and then again five years later, was forced out of office in a coup led by members of his own military. Demonstrations in the country against his corrupt regime had been going on for many months following disputed legislative elections and growing unhappiness with his government’s handling of the country’s Islamic insurgency and basic issues such as policing, electricity, water and schools. Once considered a model of democracy in the region, Mali has lost that title even though the coup leaders committed themselves to setting up a civilian transitional government and holding new, free and fair elections. Notwithstanding the billions of foreign aid dollars and military assistance that have been pumped into one of Africa’s poorest and most conflict-wracked countries, including a total of $1.6 billion from Canada alone, Mali still struggles with a highly dysfunctional government and fundamentally flawed political system that cannot deliver democratic accountability and public services that citizens deserve. The current crisis is directly affecting 4.3 million people or almost a quarter of Mali’s population. Since 2018, more than half a million of its citizens have been internally displaced. Continuing conflict is contributing to major food shortages, which have been exacerbated by lack of rain and growing desertification resulting from climate change. This can further destabilize the entire Sahel region, which is already grappling with the spread of violent religious extremism and governments beset by similar democratic deficiencies. 

Ukraine is another example of a country where relatively new democratic institutions that were established in the aftermath of successive Orange (2004-5) and Maidan (2014) revolutions continue to be imperilled by cronyism and corruption. A steady succession of political leaders in the country has vowed to fight corruption and embark on a reformist path only to succumb to the power of the country’s oligarchs (some of whom control its media) and Ukraine’s Russian-backed old guard. 

In a worrying trend, leading Ukrainian anti-corruption advocates have been subjected to political and violent physical attacks. This past summer, Vitaliy Shabunin, who is one of the country’s most prominent voices for reform, had his home fire- bombed by arsonists. Although he and his young family were not at home at the time, the incident showed the real dangers to which outspoken activists are exposed. Ukraine’s international partners and President Volodymyr Zelensky roundly condemned the arson attack. 

As the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, the Atlantic Council, observes, “Zelensky was propelled to power in spring 2018 on a populist wave that owed much to his outsider credentials and campaign trail promises to end the culture of corruption which most Ukrainians blame for the country’s woes. Since winning the presidency [however], he has struggled to live up to this billing. Zelensky has repeatedly failed to act in defence of anti-corruption figures and has dismissed numerous reformers from senior government positions while appointing dubious figures with ties to discredited former administrations.” 

A comprehensive survey of the state of democracy around the world — the Global Barometer Surveys — finds that democracies today are under unprecedented duress, and that no region is untouched by the pressures of rising authoritarianism, populism and stagnation. Although the survey finds important variations in the factors that are contributing to what it refers to as the world’s “democratic recession,” a common theme affecting the level of trust citizens have in their democratic institutions is “perceptions of corruption.” As the study underscores, “corruption is negatively correlated with… support for democracy across all regions,” concluding that “Good governance is an essential prerequisite for democratic support.” What is most troubling is that surveys of public opinion find: “Citizens around the world are becoming more critical of government and political leaders” and that growing perceptions of corruption are a major fac- tor in their loss of trust. 

Among the other interesting findings of the survey is that citizens, in general, “are more likely to think that corruption in the national government is more pervasive than in local/municipal government.” The young, on average, are much more inclined to believe than senior members of society that government at all levels is corrupt. Interestingly, women in some countries such as China, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Africa and El Salvador are more likely to perceive corruption in local and national governments than men. Those with higher levels of educational attainment are most critical of corruption, whereas those with little or no education are less so. On a cross-regional comparative basis, perceptions of corruption for all levels of government are highest in Latin America and the Arab world and somewhat lower in Africa and East Asia. 

According to the World Bank, endemic corruption also poses a major threat to poverty alleviation and to prosperity, and disproportionately affects the poorest members of society, who typically pay the highest percentage of their income in bribes to unscrupulous officials. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that corruption, bribery, theft, tax evasion and other illicit financial flows cost developing countries US$1.26 trillion per year. That is more than half of Canada’s GDP and “is enough money to lift the 1.4 billion people who get by on less than $1.25 a day above the poverty threshold and keep [them] there for at least six years,” according to the WEF. And Western countries are not exempted from the corruption scourge. The countries of the European Union have collectively “lost” $132 billion annually to corruption. 

The pandemic the world is currently facing may also increase levels of corruption and accelerate the “democratic deficit” as public health systems are exploited by profiteers and rapacious officials who are using the crisis as a pretext to short-circuit democratic institutions and curtail civil liberties. Public health systems generally present a risk for rampant theft and exploitation anyway. In a pre-COVID study, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that, on an annual basis, roughly $455 billion of the $7.35 trillion that is spent globally on health care is lost to fraud and corruption. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 45 per cent of citizens in a global survey believed the health sector to be “corrupt” or “very corrupt.” The WEF warns that as governments around the world pour millions of dollars, if not billions, into the health sector to combat the pandemic, corruption in the health sector will grow exponentially. 

To address this problem, the WEF is urging the formation of “a coalition of civil society, business leaders and dedicated government officials and funders to strengthen government accountability and effectiveness and change the trajectory of this pandemic and our futures.” How- ever, such a coalition should also target its efforts at promoting wider institutional reforms to address other chronic sources of corruption. These include corruption in state-owned enterprises, “grand corruption” in government procurement of goods and services (public procurement accounts for more than a third of GDP in many advanced industrial economies and the figure is higher in many developing and emerging market economies) and corrupt practices to secure wealth in natural resource exploitation. 

There have been notable advances is some countries to meet the anti-corruption challenge. Ukraine established its own High Anti-Corruption Court in 2018, under strong pressure not just from local activists, but also from the United States, the International Monetary Fund and G7 countries, including Canada. Such efforts followed the earlier actions of the reform- minded Maidan government to publicly name and shame corrupt judicial officials. The court officially began operations last year and is supported by Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau and specialized anti-corruption prosecutor’s office. To be effective, however, these bodies must have the political will to enable them to operate independently with sufficient financial resources and trained staff, access to information and a role for Parliament in taking action on their findings. 

After much debate and public pressure, the European Union created a European public prosecutor’s office in 2017, which is scheduled to begin operations by this year’s end. The office will have the authority to “investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT [tax] fraud.” (The EU’s existing bodies lack the necessary authority to carry out criminal investigations and prosecutions.) An International Anti-Corruption Court, as some are now urging, could also serve as a useful complement to these efforts. 

Functioning, resourced and professional legislatures are crucial for democratic accountability. Support should also be directed at strengthening legislative competence and oversight. Key priorities are: holding the executive branch of government accountable and ensuring that the management of public accounts is fiscally transparent and that there are proper avenues for legislative and public participation in public finance oversight. 

Ultimate political accountability rests with those who hold elected office. Strong and effective parliamentary institutions, which have the legislative authority and competence to oversee how public funds are spent, will serve as the best defence against corruption, and help restore citizens’ faith in their political institutions and leaders. Accordingly, legislators need the requisite knowledge and training, along with skilled staff and the right organizational structures to exercise their oversight functions and serve the public interest. Relevant examples of such efforts include, for example, multi-stakeholder training on anti-corruption by the office of the co-ordinator of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Kazakhstan or the mentoring efforts of the Commonwealth Secretariat in different countries to develop anti-corruption legislation. Finally, though among the most mistrusted institutions in many countries, political parties are an essential component of a competitive, rules-based democratic system. Support for policy- based, professional political parties that can channel public frustrations and aspirations is a very difficult task, but it can and should be done and not just by countries like the United States, which has provided such assistance through its National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. We also need “democracy-sensitive” response and post-COVID recovery assistance as a recent report by Sweden’s IDEA Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which was supported and endorsed by Canada’s pro-democracy Parliamentary Centre, urges. 

Unfortunately, in recent years, it has not been fashionable in development circles to support the strengthening of legislative institutions, especially in their oversight roles and responsibilities as Canada’s own overseas development assistance policies, which are focused inter alia on gender equality, human dignity, environment and climate action and various forms of “inclusive governance,” attest. Further, many international partners judge support for political party development as too risky. But as painful experience in Lebanon, Mali, Belarus, Ukraine and a long list of other countries underscores, good money will be chasing bad unless there is a corresponding effort by donors to focus their spending and capacity-building efforts on the core foundational requisites of “good governance” and to deliver more than stern lectures to corrupt leaders in countries where democracy has failed. 

This article was first published in Diplomat Magazine.


  • Fen Osler Hampson

    Fen Osler Hampson is a former Director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) (2000-2012). He is currently Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of International Affairs in the School. Professor Hampson served as Director of the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) and is the President of the World Refugee & Migration Council.