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Should aid fight corruption? New book questions logic behind this week’s anti-corruption summit

Duncan Green's picture

Over at the Center for Global Development, Charles Kenny wants comments on the draft of his book on Aid and Corruption (deadline end of May). Let’s hope this becomes standard practice – it worked brilliantly for me on How Change Happens – more varied voices can chip in good new ideas, spot mistakes or contradictions, and it all helps get a buzz going ahead of publication.

But let me take it one step further. As a contribution to the corruption summit, hosted by David Cameron on 12 May 2016, I thought I would summarize/review the book. Charles gave the green light, provided I stress the ‘preliminary, drafty, subject-to-revisiony nature of the text’. Done.

The summit is about a lot more than aid – for example the rich countries putting their houses in order on tax havens. Which is just as well, because the book poses some real challenges to the whole ‘anti-corruption’ narrative on aid. What’s more, it is erudite, engagingly written and upbeat – as you’d expect given Charles’ optimistic previous takes like Getting Better. He’s got a great eye for telling research and ‘man bites dog’ surprise findings. Example: ‘Taking a cross section of countries and comparing current income (2010) to corruption perceptions in 2002 and income in 2002, results suggests more corrupt countries in 2002 have higher incomes in 2010.’

His core argument is pretty striking – when it comes to aid and corruption, corruption does indeed matter, but the cure is often worse than the disease: ‘an important and justified focus on corruption as a barrier to development progress has led to policy and institutional change in donor agencies that is damaging the potential for aid to deliver development.’ Ouch.