Corruption and Development

Unacceptable levels of poverty continue to prevail in South Asia. In order to understand the nature of this poverty we have to first challenge the popularly held beliefs about its causes.

Just as there are people who believe that illiteracy or overpopulation are the major causes of poverty, there are others who attribute it to corruption and argue that nothing can be done till corruption is eliminated.

There is no doubt that corruption is a pervasive and aggravating phenomenon but even a cursory look at hard data and a comparative analysis should make one skeptical of the assertion that it is a major cause of underdevelopment in South Asia.

China provides one contrary example. The issue of corruption is very high on the political agenda of the Chinese government and people holding very high offices have been executed for related crimes. But despite the corruption the economy has expanded continuously over the past fifteen years at historically unprecedented rates of growth. Today China is considered a major economic power of the future. The concern with corruption stems less from its impact on growth and more from the social discontent it causes which negatively impacts the credibility of the government at home and abroad.

Indonesia is another country where considerable economic development occurred despite very high levels of corruption that are well documented. The country was very much a part of the East Asian miracle whose momentum was broken by the financial crisis in 1997. While the other regional economies have recovered, Indonesia is lagging not because of corruption but because of the political instability that ensued after the fall of the Suharto regime.

The East Asian crisis raises interesting issues related to corruption. Many analysts were quick to attribute the crisis to the high levels of corruption in the regional economies and “crony capitalism” emerged as a popular explanation for what happened.

This may or may not be correct but from our perspective the relevant aspect of the East Asian miracle is the tremendous economic development that took place prior to the crisis. This suggests that significant economic growth is possible despite high levels of corruption. Therefore, we need to continue searching for the causes of the lack of similar dramatic growth in South Asia.

Within South Asia, the Indian economy is doing much better than in the past and the country has begun to be mentioned in the same league as China. Our Indian readers would be able to inform us if the acceleration in the rate of growth is the result of any significant decrease in corruption in the country.

While the Indian economy is charting a steady upward course, the Pakistani economy is continuing its usual roller-coaster pattern. Once again it would be hard to relate these ups and downs to sudden changes in the level of corruption in the country. Bangladesh is rated much worse than Pakistan on the corruption index but its economic performance is not very different.

It would be interesting to compare the levels of corruption in South Asian countries. If they are different, we would like readers to try and explain the likely reasons for the differences. Such an analysis could yield ideas that could contribute to identifying measures that could reduce the prevalence of corruption.

A focused discussion of corruption would benefit from defining it narrowly as the abuse of public office for private gain. This would distinguish it from other criminal acts like fraud, embezzlement, extortion, blackmail, etc., all of which can be committed by private individuals not holding public office.

It would also help to consider separately the phenomena of low- and high-level corruption, respectively. Low-level corruption is what citizens encounter every day and what colors their perception of its importance. The social frustrations caused by having to run around and pay extra money for virtually everything can understandably make it seem the cause of all our problems.

In fact, low-level corruption may not have major negative consequences for economic growth. It constitutes a transfer of money from one pocket to another in a society where many public officials are not paid a living wage and where bureaucratic procedures remain archaic, cumbersome and slow. Its incidence inevitably diminishes with economic growth and modernization as both the need to demand small bribes and the opportunities to manipulate procedures decrease.

In a perverse way one can argue that low-level corruption, while frustrating, could actually be good for growth. The money that would otherwise go into government revenues is siphoned off into private pockets. And we can claim that in South Asia private individuals spend money more sensibly than governments. It is quite likely the government revenues would be used to buy non-productive weapons from abroad to fight non-productive wars with neighbors contributing nothing to the economies and destroying existing assets. Individuals, on the other hand, would be buying goods and services produced in local markets.

High-level corruption (the domain of big people and big businesses playing for big stakes), on the other hand, can have major lasting negative effects if public resources are diverted from economically useful to economically useless activities. But the fact remains that there are economies that have continued to grow even in the face of high-level corruption. Prime ministers have gone to jail in Korea and have been indicted in Japan on charges of corruption. Nevertheless Japan is among the richest countries in the world and Korea has vaulted into the ranks of developed countries within the period of a few decades. (We can assume that there is much less low-level corruption in Japan and Korea.)

These arguments are not intended as a defense of corruption. The world would be a better place without it and it does impose costs on the economy. But the contention that corruption is our biggest problem and we need to eliminate it before meaningful change can occur is not supported by evidence. We need to look beyond the simple answer to figure out what might be holding back South Asian economies from developing at the same rate as those in East Asia.

Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 180 countries.  Following is a sample of some rankings (a higher rank signifies higher level of corruption): Japan 17, Korea 43, China 72, India 72, Thailand 84, Sri Lanka 94, Vietnam 123, Philippines 131, Pakistan 138, Indonesia 143, Bangladesh 162.

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  • Suvradip Dasgupta
    Posted at 07:16h, 25 August Reply

    1. you say: “…the economy has expanded continuously over the past fifteen years at historically unprecedented rates of growth. Today China is considered a major economic power of the future.” – Sir, do you honestly think that this ‘growth’ in economy is really something we can boast of. we all know it very well that such developments or growths of economy are measured on basis of factors such as per capita GDP on basis of PPP
    (purchasing power parity). but that hardly reflects, if at all, the real economic condition of the mass population of the concerned country. economic growth, after all, has to be holistic – it is meant to enhance the
    living condition of the mass. and these are just mere figures, arrived at largely on basis of the big industries and the now booming tertiary sector. how much does it reflect the living condition of the people at large?

    2. you say: “…This suggests that significant economic growth is possible despite high levels of corruption.” – Sorry to say, sir, but i fail to agree to this. in your enthusiasm to arrive at immediate solutions, you are dangerously ignoring, and even to an extent advocating, a menace that, anyway, will keep us from arriving at holistic developments.

    3. do not you think that literacy and proper education of each and every individual is of paramount importance in this regard? you have mentioned the East Asian nations and their development over the last few decades. and you have asked why we, the South Asians, cannot achieve such development. well,

    i would like to name a few east Asian countries, their rank vis-a-vis literacy rate and the approx literacy rate:

    Russia – 12 (99.4%)
    Republic of Korea – 18 (99%)
    Japan – 18 (99%)

    And, here are a few South Asian nations:
    India – 147 (61%)
    Bangladesh – 164 (47.5%)
    Pakistan – 160 (49.9%)
    Myanmar – 90 (89.9%)
    Bhutan – 165 (47%)
    Sri Lanka – 87 (90.7%)

    does this give us any impression?

    as always, i am confident that you will take my argument in the best of spirit and i will be benefited with an insightful write-up from your end.

    thank you.
    Suvradip Dasgupta


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:43h, 26 August Reply

    Dear Suvradip,

    Thank you for your questions that allow us to extend the conversation which is the real objective of this blog. Let us respond to your questions in the order you have posed them:

    1. We agree that economic growth (as measured by GDP per capita) does not tell the complete story. But when GDP increases at around 10 percent per year for almost 30 years, it is bound to have some impact. That impact and change is visible to anyone who has visited China over the years. Almost all observers agree that China has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

    But let us assume that you are not convinced by this evidence. What is the indicator you would prefer to use to measure the living condition of people at large? We could then look to see if data is available for that measure.

    Of course, we should discuss the costs at which China has achieved its success. Are these costs too high? You might find an article by Edward Friedman (Is China a success while India is a failure? World Affairs, Fall 2004) of interest in this connection.

    2. On corruption, we were quite clear in stating that it is not something to be endorsed. The point we wanted to make was that significant economic growth can occur despite corruption. We provided evidence to show that equally corrupt countries have grown at very different rates. Thus corruption alone cannot be used as an explanation of slow growth and persistent poverty in South Asia.

    It would be good if you clarify what exactly you mean by the term “holistic development”.

    3. I agree completely that literacy is important and that East Asian countries are reaping the rewards of investing in their citizens. But, once again, the point was that literacy alone cannot explain the differences in development. Look at the list you have compiled. Myanmar and Sri Lanka have very high literacy rates but the development is nowhere close to the East Asian record.

    The point of these articles is that there is no one single reason for the differences in growth across countries. We need a more comprehensive analysis to account for the reality on the ground.

  • ali sohail
    Posted at 23:51h, 01 September Reply

    It is probably wise to distinguish between growth and development, growth can be achieved based on quarterly or yearly gdp figures, however development is something far more substantial, drawing on economic, social and political indicators.

    1. The true extend to which corruption (or any other social ill-will) will impact economic development, is dependent on the incentives that such form of practices create. In some countries corruption may lead to a greater impact on development, in others, less.

    In other words, the impact of corruption on eco dev, will depend upon the country specific elasticity to the action. The differences in results are based on the differences in incentives created.

    For instance, studies show that generally speaking devolution and territorial competition in the west is complemented by electoral politics and private land ownership. However, in china

    Gordon and Chein (2007) note:
    ‘In mainland China, however, a very strong form of this competition has emerged without either of these supports. In general, the development of such local collective action and its particular effects reflect an interaction between materially interested local agents and structural pressures. The difference in China is that these agents are principally local government leaders whose career prospects within a still centralized system depend upon performance in terms of economic criteria set from above.’

    Hence, the prevalence of corruption may not deter growth or development, it is the incentives it creates which would impact growth, which may differ from region to region depending on various other interactions.

    2. Therefore, rather than a pure notion (more or less corruption and eco growth), it is important to note which incentives need to be created to guarantee eco growth, in a sustained manner (hence eco dev).

    Rodriguez and Storper (2006) make a strong and important contribution to this, they state 3 core incentives:
    a) micro economic efficiency
    b) social policy underpinnings of such efficiency
    c) a problem solving environment

    the paper can be read at:

    * it is important to note that these incentives can take any form, it the result rather than the face these incentives undertake which matters.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:40h, 03 September Reply

    Dear Ali,

    A very valid point indeed. The real action is in the incentives and that is what needs to be analyzed in every situation. It is the nature of the incentives that determines behavior. And, of course, it is the mechanisms of accountability that moderate the incentives.

    So, corruption by itself is not a determinant of growth or the lack of it. Focusing on the incentives would yield a much better understanding of why growth occurs in some places and not in others.

    And then one could push the analysis back and discuss what gives rise to incentives and why they are positive in some situations and negative in others.

    By the way, it would help readers if you sharpened the definition of growth and development which are indeed different as you say. It is not enough to say that growth depends on figures while development depends on indicators. I can guess what you are trying to say but an explication would be useful.

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  • Nadine Murtaza, HS Islamabad
    Posted at 06:18h, 01 March Reply

    Two things: Firstly, I disagree that corruption can be side-stepped and put on hold as we wait for economic growth, let alone sustainable development. And secondly, I feel that we need a new theory of corruption, an explanation for why we behave corruptly. It is insufficient to simply define corruption so carefully but then settle for mere assumptions about where it comes from, and why it’s so rampant.

    Corruption is one of several problems in South Asia that his risen to critical emergency levels; poverty, unemployment, education, health care, women’s rights, extremism, and on and on… Given the often incredible suffering of the average citizen, it is easy to say corruption is ONLY one of several problems, and if we work to fix the other things, we will “grow” in spite of it.

    I agree with SouthAsian that corruption may not be the cause of poverty, and yet treating the question so clinically seems naive. Shouldn’t we then ask what is the cause of corruption and of poverty?

    On a human level, rampant corruption (which ultimately boils down to violating others to benefit yourself) shouldn’t become habitual practice throughout society unless there is something truly dysfunctional at the core of it all. Perhaps corruption is a symptom produced by other, far more serious social problems. To brush it aside is to overlook an important clue about what is really wrong in our countries. If your child had red spots all over his face and body, you wouldn’t say, “Eat your vitamins, your brother ate vitamins and look how tall he’s become! Once you’re tall everything else will address itself.”

    When discussing the impact corruption has on economic development it is important to at least outline the range of corrupt behaviour, and briefly consider the ways in which it affects people or organizations at different levels of the economy.

    Corruption, by definition, includes everything from coming to work late, to extortion, to high level embezzlement. All of these affect the economy in obvious ways, but many people feel this kind of impact is easy to neglect in serious analysis. Unfortunately for the optimists however, corrupt behaviour frequently manifests itself as say the government’s failure (or unwillingness) to protect private property. In the case of recent Karachi riots, city-wide gun battles notwithstanding, mobs robbed bank ATMs, burned down factories (and therefore jobs) worth billions, destroyed shops and bakeries, and torched motorcycles.

    In Pakistan, capitalists and factory-workers alike find their lives, their livelihoods, and their property in danger because corruption pervades every level of the bureaucracy. There is never any guarantee that things will get done, and always a high chance that blackmail and extortion by petty officials who are in charge of small but necessary decisions will make them worse.

    Similarly with schools and education, corrupt practice is found amongst the most powerful politicians who embezzle, amongst petty officials who sell free texts and materials for personal gain, amongst payroll officers who extort favours from school employees in exchange for their well-earned salaries, and amongst school staff who resort to nepotism when hiring or do not show up to teach.

    This affects our level of literacy no doubt, as well preparedness for the job market, which affects industry, etc. But far more seriously, it affects the government’s ability to communicate a unified understanding of what Pakistan stands for, how the government operates, what the standards of citizenship are, etc. In any country, public schools, or even private schools subject to national curriculum standards, are the primary battlegrounds for combatting intolerance against race, creed, caste, but even against disability.

    Before saying that we need to spend more money on education (which is also true) don’t we also need to ask why the right people aren’t allowed into the Ministry or put in charge of affairs? Or why, when we have found a way to provide textbooks free of charge across Punjab, are parents, who can’t afford to pay for them still being turned away from schools? Can you resolve the problem by offering MORE free textbooks?

    Corruption must be addressed, and what must be understood is why there is this free for all, every-man-for-himself attitude amongst, say Pakistanis. Many explanations are possible, but one that I have spent a great deal of time coming up with, focuses on the structure of family and network ties.

    Pakistan, India, Nigeria and so many more are all kin-based societies. Governance, law and order, legal contracts, and loans were all governed by the family or tribe, by the village panchayat, for centuries before we discovered parliamentary law. These bodies continue to be incredibly important even today. In fact, we are still kin groups and tribes, village republics competing in this new, superficially imposed system to gain supremacy over each other. How many prominent political families will have the sons of two brothers run for opposing parties, one for PPP, the other for PML-N, so no matter who wins the seat stays within the family.

    In truth, the real task of nation building still lies before us… we are corrupt, not because we are bad people, but because we do not see each other as countrymen whose destinies are inextricably linked. For centuries, even tribes that coexisted peacefully have not been as loyal to outsiders as they were to their own kinsmen. Any interaction with a foreign government (whether of another state, or of some conquering nation) became a mutually exploitative relationship. The British were exploiting India for the benefit of their Queen, so a postal clerk asked to find a helper would exploit the British in return by bringing in his unqualified brother.

    If the rules of engagement had been different, it might be fair to say the postal clerk practiced nepotism, but the rules were very squarely defined as US against YOU. If the British created a few schools to educate a few people it was to prepare a class that would benefit their ability to govern India. It was not out of any philanthropic or brotherly commitment to the people of the subcontinent. Is it a surprise then, that the people never developed a sense of brotherhood, either amongst themselves, or for the brown sahibs that replaced the British upon independence. A government apparatus structured to govern for exploitation should have been reworked to govern free men… but it was not.

    In all fairness, our destinies are tied to the people who would raise our children if we were unable, who have cared for our health and protection, who have ensured our education, and will arrange for our funerals… In Pakistan even today, regardless of how wealthy you are, public education is poor, public health care unreliable, public transportation unsatisfactory, tap water unsanitary, protection not guaranteed, welfare unheard of… When the government has this sort of relationship with it’s citizens, what petty official or bureaucrat can afford to alienate his kin-group or “network” by snubbing their demands for favours? Especially when, without the clemency of those relatives he will be alone and helpless.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:48h, 01 March Reply

    Nadine, Thanks for your input. Many of the points you raise are addressed in the companion post on the blog – Corruption: Counterintuitive Conclusions. Do read it and see how many of your concerns are addressed and then let us focus on those that remain.

    Meanwhile, I would like to make the following points for you to consider:

    1. Nobody likes corruption. The aggravation it causes in our daily lives is immense. Therefore there is a natural emotional response that corruption is the root of all are problems. But is this also a good analytical response? Can it be supported by evidence? As we have argued the relationship to poverty and economic growth is not obvious and is not supported by the evidence. Which is not the same as saying that corruption is good or should be accepted.

    2. A theory of why corruption exists will be of interest. I am not convinced that corruption came into South Asia with the British or that it is related to the ties of nationhood. Corruption is a universal phenomenon – perhaps even a part of human nature to be controlled by intelligent rules and regulations. Look at the list by Transparency International and see if you can relate the extent of corruption to any societal variables.

    3. Getting to a theory requires a tight definition of the phenomenon we are trying to understand. Defining it very broadly to cover every kind of unacceptable behavior (coming late to work, burning buildings, cheating on exams) will be a handicap in getting to a theory of corruption. Let us agree on a definition of corruption before we try to explain and control it. One generally accepted definition classifies corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. Thus cheating or blackmail or violence or negligence are all bad but they are not instances of corrupt behavior.

    4. It is also useful to divide instances of corruption into two broad classes – corruption caused by the poverty of public officials and corruption caused by greed of otherwise affluent officials. You will find great variation in the first across countries at different levels of development but much less variation in the second. This would help us in constructing our theory of corrupt behavior.

  • Nadine, HS
    Posted at 07:46h, 05 March Reply

    Dear South Asian,
    As per your advice, I read through the article titled Corruption: Counterintuitive Conclusions.

    According to my understanding, the chief complaint expressed in this article was that “We never get away from blaming corruption for everything that is wrong in South Asia.” ‘Never’ and ‘everything’ are strong words. While I can appreciate that you may have encountered an absolutist sentiment with regards to corruption, I can hardly say that I have. I’ve always felt we have too many half-baked conspiracy theories, especially pertaining to sabotage by foreign lobbies—in my experience we blame a great many people, entities, phenomenon, corruption is though chief among them, is only one. Shouldn’t we be concerned that the use of sweeping generalizations will constrict our room for serious dialogue about this subject?

    At any rate, the first half of your article is dedicated to quoting examples from the US, China, and other developed countries to prove two things, firstly that corruption cannot be eradicated absolutely, and secondly that “when the engine of development gets going, it is not brought to a halt by corruption”.

    I want to clarify that I agree completely with the first, that corruption, like socio-economic disparity (not necessarily poverty though) and prostitution are ancient vices that will probably always be around. We can do our best to minimize it, handle it, control it, but we cannot erase it from human nature. While I do not have any serious disagreements with your second conclusion, it again is too much of sweeping statement for me to sign onto it lock, stock and barrel. When you call for a more nuanced understanding of corruption however, I concur absolutely that we must understand the finer details of how and why corruption functions within our society.

    The thesis of this essay seems to be: Down with idle talk of corruption being a curse, and on with unleashing the “engine of development”. To demonstrate that the issue of corruption can be brushed aside, you quote the example of India and China. These are two neighboring countries with famously corrupt government bureaucracies, and therefore, you claim, the reason Pakistan lags behind them is not corruption it is these other factors: quality of leadership and human capital, stability of the social order.

    That a “nuanced understanding” of corruption should eliminate it from the equation altogether surprised me at first. It seemed a more sensible thing to argue that corruption affects Pakistan in the way that it (along with other factors OF COURSE) hinders the rise of quality leadership, the development of human capital, and social order.

    This very objection arose throughout my reading of your final conclusions:

    You say, “One can measure the quality of leadership by the sum of the qualifications of the key decision makers.” But do degrees, professional skills and qualifications, or even intellectual aptitude, i.e. the capacity to make good decisions, ensure that men and women will make decisions that are for the people’s betterment, rather than the benefit of their kin group, voter base, interest group, etc?

    Similarly, you argue that one can measure “the degree of stability by the orderliness of transfers of leadership, and the depth of human capital by the extent of illiteracy on the one hand and the number of institutions of higher education that are globally recognized on the other.” While there is no contesting this, we must look beyond the measures of stability to the factors that affect it, corruption being one amongst many, which also include foreign policy, and terrorism.

    It is insufficient to say that the absence of these factors, and not corruption, differentiates Pakistan from India and China. What has lead to the absence of these factors? And how can it be addressed? Don’t we need to ask these questions? And when we do ask them, shouldn’t we consider what has been the role of corruption in all this, and to what extent will addressing corruption, or any of the other factors, improve stability or human capital development?

    I could not disagree more with your statement that, “Pakistani leadership does not have the competence to unleash the forces of development – it matters little whether it is corrupt or not.” Firstly, this is a blanket statement backed by no serious evidence, but even if we step away from the podium of academic discourse and accept this as a valid description of a commonly-held belief, corruption will still matter.

    Thousands of millions of small decisions made by individuals and groups over the past hundred years have led to the current leadership being what it is. The fact that the people taking those decisions have been corrupt has made all the difference. Is the Pakistani leadership incompetent because there are no competent people in Pakistan? Or because corrupt practice, insincere appointments, and rigged systems have time and time again brought people into office, who are unqualified, but loyal to the powers that be? What is the objective of appointing an unqualified official into a state office where he will neither serve the people, nor manage their resources skillfully, nor help them prepare for the future? What can the objective be except to extract some unlawful gain from his position?

    You say so boldly that “If we wish to unleash the engine of development we have to demand competence in our leadership,” and yet do not indicate that we must examine the ways in which our feudal political structure prevents accountability. Through what channels should we demand competence when dissenters disappear in the night, or end being shot at their own doorsteps? When officials have become extortionists, capable of inflicting devastating harm on our commercial media, are even the wealthiest capitalists able to complain?

    It is not that we fail “to recognize competence in our applicants for office,” but merely that competence is of no serious value to a corrupt government that cares more for embezzlement than actual governance. Recognizing competence is not what we need to learn. In education for instance, the Beaconhouse or City School Systems prevalent across Pakistan, and operating even now in places like Swat, have demonstrated their competence in managing enormous educational networks. Why the government does not seek them out as advisors or leaders for public education programs is anyone’s guess, why their own offers of assistance are turned down by the government is another mystery. While the reasons are complicated I’m sure, I would find it extremely hard to believe that bureaucratic and state corruption had no part in the matter.

    To nurture competence in our students, don’t we require schools, and individuals at every level who will deliver what they agree to deliver? What has come of all the foreign aid we receive for education? How can we explain why we have nothing to show for those funds? Does not corruption have some role to play in that answer?

    To get from a state of zero resources to X, where we have enough resources to sustain our society, we need funding, but once given that funding don’t we need trustworthy people who will utilize it fully, and allow/maintain accountability? In a corrupt system, whistleblowers can be silenced; bribed, threatened, murdered, does corruption not have a part in hindering “rapid development”? I respect your right to insist that corruption is not an enormous problem, but then you are not describing what is the problem? The lack of leadership is a symptom, which is caused by other factors. Until you can describe what those factors are, and why they are more serious than corruption it is hard to understand where you’re coming from.

    This brings me to the four points you raised in response to your comment, but I am going to reply to them out of order:

    1. I disagree that we see corruption as a major problem because we are responding to it emotionally. There is an overwhelming amount of hard evidence to suggest that corruption is a severe impediment to development. Dealing with corruption doesn’t cause only emotional angst but serious financial loss, leading to reduced investor confidence, brain drain, etc.

    3. Even when defining corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain, a police officer taking a personal bribe to allow a lapse in security during which mobs burn down factories, does count as corruption. I would argue however that abuse of public office, whether for personal gain or not, is also corrupt because a salaried official who fails to deliver on account of deliberate callousness is accepting a salary for services he has not provided. It is also important to remember that private gain does not have to be monetary; it can come in terms of social capital, like gaining the favor of a pressure group, respite from critics, or withdrawal of blackmail evidence, etc.

    4. I believe that corruption is spurred by more complex motivations than just greed and poverty. Pakistanis, as much as any humans, recognize corruption as an evil (we wouldn’t complain about it so much if we didn’t), and yet it is still rampant amongst us. Even the poor have a conscience, and there are many people who despite their poverty will never appropriate or accept something that is not their own. All humans are corruptible, yes, but what are the forces and pressures that force people, who might prefer to live honorable lives, to adopt corrupt behavior? The answer lies in my response to your second point.

    2. Perhaps I didn’t explain what I was saying very well, but I did not mean to suggest that corruption came to South Asia with the British at all. I merely said that the existing structure of kin-based social relationships in South Asia, transformed to accommodate the British government. India was never a unified state prior to partition, not even under Mughal rule. It was always a quilt of princely estates and village republics. The attitudes that people, or tribes, or villages developed to deal with the Mughal invaders, and then the British invaders became a means of survival for them.

    Barrington Moore writes of Mughal rule:

    If an emperor left an assignee in charge of a single area for a substantial period of time, he ran the risk of losing control over his subordinates as the latter developed an independent source of revenue and basis for his power. On the other hand, if the rulers changed the assignees very frequently from one territory to another, the subordinates would be tempted to get as much out of the peasants as possible in the time available. Cultivation would then decline and, ultimately, the Imperial revenues. Eventually therefore the sinews of the central authority would slacken, and the emperor would lose the control that he had sought to maintain through frequent transfers.

    Bernier quotes official assignees from the court of Jahangir as having said,

    Why should the neglected state of this land create uneasiness in our minds? And why should we spend our money and time to render it fruitful? We may be deprived of it in a single moment, and our exertions would benefit neither ourselves nor our children. Let us draw from the soil all the money we can, though the peasant should starve or abscond, and we should leave it, when commanded to quit, a dreary wilderness.

    The attitudes of the rulers, forced the peasants to develop their own mechanisms of protection, and relied on their own elders to resolve their disputes. The exploitative Mughal and British governments were not entrusted with arbitration of feuds, their laws were not respected, and this attitude persisted even after partition. Different groups; the Baloch tribes, the clans of our federally administered tribal areas, the people living under patrimonial feudal situations in Punjab and Sindh, continued dealing with the new, independent Pakistani government as they ever had with its British predecessor.

    I did not say that the interaction of people dwelling within Pakistan under these diverse forms of governance were corrupt. I said merely that they retained the relationship of mutual exploitation, which they had established with the British, i.e. they might take employment with the government but they were not loyal to it. Their loyalties lay with their kinsmen, village republic, and tribe. They did not abide by the laws of the Pakistani government except where it benefited them. At all times, the authority of their traditional laws and traditional codes was, and is, paramount.

    Hence we may conclude that the rule of law in Pakistan is shaky because people still invest more faith and reverence tribal laws, even brutal ones that sanction burying women alive, than they do in civil laws issued by their corrupt, indifferent, elite rulers.

    How can people be taught to respect and embrace civil law, and come to see all Pakistanis as they do their kin? One way would be to launch a massive citizenship building program on a countrywide scale that communicates what the laws are, what their governing philosophy is, etc. Beyond mere advertising though, the government will have to transform into a representative, responsive body. Everyone needs to be brought onto the same page, even if their voices can’t all be heard, they should be embraced by one, unified philosophy communicated by the government.

    And that is what I feel is the primary difference between India, China and Pakistan. That India, as much through Bollywood as through its public education system and immense network of universities has brought its diverse citizenry more or less onto a single ideological platform as Indians. China, through Mao’s revolution has enforced the world’s strictest population control laws, while also incorporating virtually the entire female population into the labor force. Can either of these incredible measures be seen at work in Pakistan, unifying the populace, mobilizing the work force, educating the masses, or controlling population growth?

    The most valuable analytical weapon at our disposal is the question “Why?” Why have these measures not been implemented successfully in other countries but not in Pakistan? Corruption is certainly part of the answer.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:15h, 05 March Reply

    Nadine: Thank you for your detailed response which advances this discussion in the right direction.

    Your point about generalization is well taken. Let me give you the background. I agree that there are too many half-baked theories of what ails Pakistan. However, most people have one favorite explanation – it is either corruption or overpopulation or illiteracy or feudalism or lack of religious conviction, etc. Therefore when I started to write about what I thought really ails Pakistan, I had to first take care of these favorite theories, i.e., convince the readership that any one of these was not the root of all our problems. Thus each of the preliminary articles was addressed to the group that adhered to a particular theory which accounts for the generalization.

    What I was trying to argue with the groups was the following: I am listening to you but what you are stating is not an explanation; it is an assertion. If you make a strong assertion and walk away, you have communicated your belief to me but you have not convinced me. In order to convince me you have to select the evidence that supports your assertion and use an evidence- and fact-based process of argumentation and reasoning to convert me to your point of view.

    This is the reason you will find that all the articles try to look at the evidence and move forward from there. I am not saying that corruption is good or that it does not matter or that it can be brushed aside. I am saying: look at the cross-sectional evidence and then explain why corruption is holding back development in Pakistan when it has not done so in other countries. I am willing to concede that these other countries (take China, Korea and India as examples) might have had even higher rates of growth if they had less corruption. But the fact remains that despite corruption they have developed much faster than Pakistan.

    This same reasoning would apply if you make the case that corruption in Pakistan hinders the rise of quality leadership, the development of human capital, and social order. The question will be: Why has it not done so in other countries? What is special about Pakistan that makes it the exception to the rule?

    All societies started as kin-based ones and the parts of British India now in India were just as kin-based as those now in Pakistan. In addition they were caste-based as well. So what explains the difference in the trajectories of development? Note that the take-off in India dates to the early 1990 public policy reforms by Dr. Manmohan Singh – there was no sharp change in the incidence or prevalence of corruption at that time nor did India suddenly become more united as a nation. Similarly, the take-off in China is dated to the open-door policy of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s – again there was no sudden change in corruption or in the unity of China. How the Indian and Chinese leadership responded to crises in their countries and the policies they put in place provide a lot of the explanation for the different trajectories of development in these countries.

    Mao’s revolution can be credited with a lot of things but it also led to the Great Leap Forward in which over 40 million people starved and the Cultural Revolution in which two entire generations of educated young people was lost. So, good and bad policies can have huge consequences that can dwarf other factors like corruption. If you read the papers you will see that China is still a very corrupt society but it now has over one trillion dollars in reserve.

    You are absolutely right that the most valuable analytical weapon at our disposal is the question WHY? We have to keep pushing back the analysis by asking why at every stage till we are convinced we have found what we are looking for.

    So the question now is: What makes Pakistan different from all the other countries that have overcome the barriers of corruption, overpopulation and illiteracy much better than Pakistan? Why has Pakistan not been able to do the same? Corruption cannot be the answer because similar corruption existed and still exists in all our comparator countries.

    Once again, this does not mean that I endorse corruption or wish to brush it aside or am not bothered by it. I am only making the point that it does not provide a sufficient explanation for why Pakistan has fallen behind in the race for development. The search for a better explanation needs to continue.

    PS: Where do you place this op-ed in the context of the debate we have been having:

    Added later: An interesting article on corruption in China:

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