Friday, June 03, 2011

Corruption in Brazil and India

By Arushi Garg

On May 31, the renowned political scientist Eduardo Graeff was at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi to present his paper entitled “A Chronicle of Corruption and Transparency in Brazil.”

The gist of this paper is summarized in his own words as “Institutions matter, but history also matters.” Much of his paper focuses on how attitudes to corruption are moulded by the history of a place, and any institutions that seek to redress this problem have to take this into account.

His talk started with the hard-hitting statistic that 96% of the Brazilians surveyed by the BBC in 2010 think that corruption is a very “serious problem.” He went on to debunk the myth that democracy means an adherence to rules, while corruption means an absence thereof. Corruption has its own ground rules of greed, and of choices to be made after analyzing the costs and benefits.

This broke at the very outset, the relationship between corruption and regime types, a question he came back to later in the day when he spoke of the military government’s aim to stop communism and corruption—they stopped communism, but they only stopped the debate on corruption! He did add though, that involvement and awareness levels definitely vary with regime types. The Constitution that Brazil came up with in 1988 was the first one which involved the common people. The rise of President Lula was an important development in this regard, since he came with a humble background and started his political journey as a union leader. These were manifestations of the transition in Brazil from oligarchy to democracy, a transition that is yet to be completed.

The question of whether democracy has improved or worsened corruption in Brazil is also raised in his paper, but left deliberately unanswered. He does seem to be issuing a caveat about the role of media being a double edged sword, and how it’s easier to allege rather than prove allegations through the media. The manner in which unverified press statements have been issued with respect to the violence surrounding land acquisitions in UP for the Yamuna Expressway is a reminder of how the journalism in India too can worsen a situation rather than focusing on constructive solutions.

Corruption in Brazil, according to him, arose because of conflicting loyalties, i.e., loyalty to the nation-state on one hand and loyalty to the family, community, nationhood, class or political boss on the other. This last point in particular is the legacy of the colonial period in the 1500s in Brazil, when loyalty to your boss was paramount and it became acceptable to enjoy personal profit from your office as long as you were loyal to your boss.

Another factor that is instrumental in shaping the discourse around public attitudes to corruption is the period of slavery in Brazil. This led to the acceptance of an elite, upper class that was somehow above the law. The slaves had neither the means, nor the moral attachment to abide by the law, but did not have the social standing to abide by it. This persists in the form of what Graeff describes as “corporatism” in Brazil today, where the upper class is somehow deemed to be exempted from following the letter of the law.

This situation seems reminiscent of the lack of a culture of legality with respect to the some strata of the society in India. No one can deny that whose patronage you enjoy will have a major role to play in what law enforcement agencies expect of you.

While talking about enhancing mechanisms to facilitate transparency in Brazil, he spoke of some that are common to most of the democratic world (media, civil society, Congressional enquiries etc.) and some that are creative solutions to the particular problems of Brazil. For instance, the process of “reverse auctions” has been adopted in Brazil where instead of asking for tenders and deciding on the lowest bid, these bids are made online so that all actors involved can see the kind of prices being offered and adjust their own offer accordingly. Another illustration is the Integrated Financial Management System that provides real-time financial information that can be used for efficient utilization of resources.

Given the similarities in the nature of corruption between the two countries, perhaps we would do well to incorporate some such mechanisms in India as well, especially at this time when public discussions around corruption have reached their peak. The use of technology is catching up in India all too slowly and this pace could surely be advanced by the sort of measures that have been suggested in Brazil. Although statutes such as the Right to Information Act, 2005, talk about the digitizing information, this is not something that has been implemented in most places. The potential for using technology to encourage transparency remains largely unrealized.

Despite these mechanisms, he pointed out that political struggles, police corruption and slow legal processes meant that transparency hasn’t completely been realized in Brazil. He suggested that alternation in political power, global cooperation and using the internet to disseminate information could go a long way in dealing with these problems. The experience in other fields such as the Human Rights Movement was instructive in learning how to effectively use global pressures to deal with local problems.

This lecture was followed by an interactive discussion. A member of the audience was quick to point out that in developing countries such as Brazil, China or even India, somehow, as long as there is enough money being made, public outrage seems to be toned down with reports about expanding economies being at the forefront. Graeff agreed with this, stating that even though 96% Brazilians had expressed that they realized the enormity of the problem of corruption in the BBC survey, this could not be taken at face value.

The crimes that lead to the impeachment of President Collor in 1992 in Brazil were no more serious than those that politicians are committing on a daily basis in Brazil today, but his inability to control spiraling rates of inflation led to his impeachment. This also led him to ask that perhaps global exposure and the comparative experience of developing countries was perhaps focusing on the wrong things, and leading to higher tolerance levels of corruption rather than lowering them. Communication must be aimed so that you “act to embarrass” rather than build immunity to stories of corruption.

Audience feedback also brought about several other points. Graeff’s paper has spoken of the “history” of a culture as if it were a monolith. But there are many classes, and many social groups and at the experience of all these groups is a history worth exploring. These variations have not been accounted for. Perhaps one could say that each of these histories has its own impact on the development of a system, but the very general observations made in Graeff’s paper fail to capture these nuances.

In fact, most of the problems pointed out in Graeff’s paper are equally true of India. There is a class of people above the law, political allegiances give people the implicit right to get away with things, and democratic tools are often abused to draw political mileage. The history of both nations is distinct and unique, but the problems of corruption are more similar than someone with Graeff’s hypothesis would care to acknowledge.

Moreover the whole tenor of the proceedings was conservative, something acknowledged by Graeff himself. By suggesting that it was a failure to account for the history of a place, rather than institutional shortcomings that was the problem, he had argued against the creation of altogether new institutions. While talking about the link between crime rates and police corruption, he identified a direct link, but then added that these rates had been lowered through repression, a reality that is “embarrassing for any left leaning sociologist” to recognize. He confined himself to talking about “high corruption” and large scale scams.

This last point is reflective of an attitude that also finds its place in the debate surrounding the jurisdiction of the recently proposed Lokpal authority. Critics have suggested confining this to only large scale scams while leaving “everyday” corruption out of the ambit of the new Bill so as to not overburden a newly constituted authority. The flipside to this is that a decrease in “high corruption” may have the direct consequence of increasing corruption of other kinds to make up for the black money that is lost. While Graeff does not undermine the nature of other kinds of corruption that “has less impact in the media but more direct impact on the daily life of citizens”, it is still worth noting that the treatment of such corruption was deemed dispensable by Graeff.

Graeff suggests that institutionally, the structure for progress in Brazil is there; but the mechanisms that are developed to counter corruption must keep in mind Brazil’s history of patrimonialism, slavery and the harsh lessons the country has hard to learn with respect to inflation. While there is some merit to this proposition, perhaps Graeff may well have understated the role an institutional overhaul could have on Brazil and overstated the role of history in trying to account or the lacunae in the current regime.
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