Corruption has long faced a complex definitional and conceptual challenge with regards to how the phenomenon should be understood (Saha et al., 2012). For a long time, this definitional problem remained focused on how corruption manifests itself. Beginning with the work of Klitgaard (1988), we can see that there was a greater focus on what corruption meant with regards to the issue of development. In this context, several scholars have sought to understand how to collect data that explores how widespread of a problem corruption is (Naim, 1995; Thompson and Shah, 2005). From the outset, this objective of seeking to understand how widespread of a problem corruption is, encounters a considerable and consistent challenge, namely, what is corruption? To this end, a number of scholars and organisations have provided a wide range of definitions that seek to encapsulate the nature of the problem.
However, whilst there remains a definitional challenge, there has been a relatively general consensus developing, that – away from the notion of “greasing the wheels” – corruption has a negative social and economic impact (Klitgaard 1988; Kaufmann et al., 1999; Rose-Ackerman, 1999). Indeed, if we explore earlier work on the causes of corruption, Nye (1967, p. 418) outlines a number of factors which contribute to the enablement of corruption within developing countries, such as “great inequality in distribution of wealth; political office as the primary means of gaining access to wealth; conflict between changing moral codes; the weakness of social and governmental enforcement mechanisms; and the absence of a strong sense of national community”, alongside mentioning the weakness of national legitimacy of state institutions as being a factor that contributes to an environment in which corruption can flourish.
Several scholars have outlined the social implications of leaving corruption unchallenged (Klitgaard, 1988; Naim, 1995; Stessens, 2001). Indeed, in Klitgaard’s (1988) seminal work on corruption, the author goes as far as to state that “[a]s the evidence mounts about corruption in developing countries it seems clear that the harmful effects of corruption, greatly outweigh the (occasional) social benefits”. As such, it would be remiss of this paper to fail to evaluate the claims of corruption, serving some level of social benefit. In Huntington’s (1968) seminal work, the author evaluates corruption as a moderating political force that enables those otherwise politically marginalised to be included within the system through leveraging their economic power. Continuing on this line, the author goes on to state that “[h]e who corrupts a system’s police officers is more likely to identify with the system than he who storms the system’s police stations”. That corruption is seen as “greasing the wheels” of otherwise inefficient systems is not a new theory and is regularly used in an understanding of corruption as overcoming slow bureaucracies through the paying of bribes. However, Huntington goes on to contextualise where the limits of any social benefit of corruption exists, in that “[a] developed traditional society may be improved – or at least modernized – by a little corruption; a society in which corruption is already pervasive, however, is unlikely to be improved by more corruption” (Huntington, 1968, p. 69).
Towards the end of the Cold War, corruption started to become a significantly more important issue that required increased international attention. This was due in part to what Seligson (2002, p. 409) refers to as a period in which “trade, neoliberal reforms, and anti-narcotics efforts had come to dominate U.S. interests abroad. Along with the expansion of trade and economic reforms, however, have come unprecedented opportunities for corruption”. This spike in attention had a widespread and diffuse impact. Rather than just affecting countries which were typically assumed to be clean (with the exception of one-off scandals), the effect of this spike in attention was being felt across a large number of countries. The impact of this spike in attention was also being felt in countries which for a long time had been seen to almost tacitly accept corruption as an inevitability within elite political and business circles. This “corruption eruption” was shining a light on the need to study corruption more extensively, with both Klitgaard (1988) and Naim (1995) highlighting the lack of a way to quantify this increase in attention or indeed increased perception of corruption as an obstacle they faced in their analysis of the growth during this period.
However, this increase in attention did not in and of itself signify that the problem was getting worse. It was seemingly an acknowledgement of what was becoming increasingly clear, that corruption – far from being a moral problem – had a real negative economic impact, one which served to hinder development (Pellegrini and Gerlagh, 2004; Dreher and Herzfeld, 2005; Panizza, 2017). This corruption eruption manifested itself in a multitude of ways, such as increased media attention, as shown in Cole (2015), alongside an eruption in academic attention paid to corruption, as can be seen in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2: Growth in Academic publications on “corruption” (Clarivate Analytics, 2019)
Scholars point to several reasons that may go some way towards explaining the origins of the corruption eruption, and indeed, why we began to hear more about corruption during this period. Naim (1995, p. 247), for instance, points to increasing democratisation, a freer media landscape, changing economic policy frameworks, emboldened public institutions such as courts, and increased political competition as some of the reasons which created the space in which an increased focus on corruption could exist.
It is through this theoretical lens that we can begin to understand the increased amount of attention paid by scholars, the media, and indeed policymakers in seeking to address corruption and its negative social and economic outcomes. The corruption eruption, as outlined by Naim (1995), thus provides the theoretical lens through which the development of international treaties and conventions, alongside the increased attention paid to measuring corruption, can be understood, further providing a critical lens through which this paper will be analysed.