Corrupt elites are being named and shamed – by the people

It will be a year ago next Wednesday that a Tunisian fruit vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi died, 18 days after dousing himself with paint thinner, setting himself alight, and inspiring a series of protests which we now remember as the Arab Spring. At the time, these protests were widely described as political. But in a recent, brilliant article for Foreign Policy magazine, the economist Hernando de Soto pointed out that these movements also had a very specific set of economic inspirations. In fact, Bouazizi was a frustrated entrepreneur, a would-be businessman who was unable to get ahead because of weak property rights, bad laws and rigged markets.

Bouazizi was in constant conflict with local officials and police who earned their living by demanding fines, bribes and kickbacks from people like him. On December 17, 2010, these authorities went one step further and seized his entire inventory, thus destroying his business. That was when he walked over to the local government offices and immolated himself outside the front door.

Millions of poor Arabs, as de Soto points out, could and did sympathise, since most of them also struggle to make a living despite weak property rights, bad laws and rigged markets. To this analysis I would add only one tiny shift in emphasis: millions of poor Arabs also sympathised profoundly with Bouazizi’s experience of endemic corruption.

In the months that followed, hatred of corruption emerged as the one theme which united all of the protest movements across the Arab world. Sophisticated Francophone Tunisians and illiterate Egyptian peasants might not see eye to eye on what kind of government should replace their authoritarian rulers, but all unanimously agreed that it should not be corrupt. The inhabitants of North Africa and the Arab peninsula might not read many of the same newspapers either, but all of them enthusiastically traded rumours about how much money Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak had stolen, about what treasures Colonel Gaddafi and his children had hidden in their concrete palaces, and about what might be the price of their London and Paris residences. I was in Cairo and Tunis last spring, and in both places heard constant rumours about how much money had been hidden abroad – was it $1 billion? Was it $100 billion? – and speculation about when and how it was going to be sent back.

And here is the odd thing: even after the Arab protests began to die down (although of course some of them, notably in Syria, are still very much with us) the theme of corruption – both big corruption, involving millions and billions, and petty local corruption, of the sort that drove Bouazizi to desperation, remains a central issue in every protest movement which has arisen since. I don’t care for the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement (let alone its ridiculous Occupy St Paul’s offshoot), but I see why the protesters are angry. In 2008, greedy and incompetent bankers provoked an enormous financial crash. The bill for that crash was paid by taxpayers. There might be good explanations for why that was necessary, but it still feels deeply unfair, as though the financial markets had rigged the system so that they never suffer for their mistakes. The person who figures out how to turn this theme into a mainstream political issue (as opposed to a reason to construct tent cities in municipal parks) might enjoy enormous popular success.
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Anger about corruption is now fuelling protests in Moscow, too. Although the two extraordinary demonstrations in the past month were provoked by the stolen parliamentary elections, the groundwork was laid by the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and his colleagues. In recent years, Navalny founded, among other things, a website dedicated to the investigation of local and municipal corruption and a website which collects and publishes photographs of potholes, cracking bridges and other examples of slovenly road construction and repair.

Navalny writes a running commentary on the nefarious activities of Russia’s largest companies, on their profoundly opaque business practices and their attempts to avoid real scrutiny. He advises readers how to confront and complain about such behaviour in their towns and villages, and how to use the legal system to get satisfaction. By doing so – and by maintaining clarity about who funds his efforts (reader donations, largely) he has won himself a kind of credibility that Russian political leaders lack.

Dozens of other such movements are gaining traction elsewhere. In India, Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old activist, has used civil disobedience and hunger strikes to force the Indian parliament to pass anti-corruption legislation this year. It remains one of the central themes in Brazilian politics, where public campaigns have also forced politicians to act. And, bubbling under the surface, anger about corruption in China is widespread.

This isn’t an accident. Forget the non-existent “Twitter revolution”: information simply spreads faster than it used to do, in myriad ways. Around the world, the poor own mobile telephones. The middle class has internet access. Everyone has satellite television, borders are more open than ever before and we travel more widely. People know a lot more about what their leaders get up to, they have more ways of discussing corruption and better ways of fighting it. And they are doing so, in greater numbers, all the time.

Yet even now, efforts to fight back in places where the problem seems truly systemic – Egypt, India, Russia – are often stymied by the conviction that “these things are cultural” and nothing can be done. Oddly, one hears this opinion very often in Britain, despite this country’s successful experience in overcoming corruption. Until 1832, lest any reader has forgotten, politicians could effectively purchase parliamentary seats in “rotten” boroughs, whereas Manchester and other large cities had no political representation. Eventually, pro-reform movements – the anti-corruption movements of their era – forced a change.

There are more recent examples. Following a series of scandals in the Nineties, Polish politicians changed the rules and required themselves to fill out lengthy declarations of interests. Procurement procedures underwent intense scrutiny, and whole categories of civil servants became wary of taking bribes. The results were far from perfect, but things have begun to change. In Transparency International’s annual “perceptions of corruption” survey, Poland now ranks 41st in the world, up from 70th in 2005, when Poles were still tied with Egyptians and Saudis.

Countries and cultures do change, political elites can be made to feel guilty, and better laws can stop bureaucrats from stealing public money. Anti-corruption movements in one country can, and clearly have, inspire changes in neighbouring countries. Action in the West might even aid the cause of activists outside the West. May I suggest that Britain could make a modest contribution, not only by sharing its past experience, but by examining the sources of funds used to purchase large houses in Belgravia, major British football teams and the like? No country is exempt from scrutiny any more. That includes the countries which harbour corrupt elites as well as those which produce them.

In Russia
A masked demonstrator attends a protest in support of the members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in Berlin
Pussy Riot demonstrations
Hunting, shooting and fishing with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s man of action and president
In pictures: Russia’s man of action
This snail may look like he is walking on water, but the surface tension of the puddle is just strong enough to support his weight
Garden pests in the rain
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of female punk band,
Pussy Riot in court

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