This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 13, 2018
The fact that the Kenyan public is concerned with the perceived mismanagement of public finances is a well-known fact in the country. At both national and county level, Kenyans cite concerns with corruption not only in terms of how public finances are misappropriated, but how bribes are demanded to secure government contracts. You sometimes have to pay government officials in order to provide a service to government it seems. Given how well the negative effects of corruption on development and economic growth have been documented, many may wonder why it persists.
There seems to be an emerging understanding of the psychology of corruption. An understanding that seems to answer why public officials continue to seek bribes and misappropriate funds even though the Kenyan public is outraged by the practice in the country. The psychology of corruption seems to be guided by the logic of self-aggrandisement and gaining financial security for the corrupt individual and his/her loved ones. Indeed, some may reason that engaging in corruption is logical in a corrupt society. It can be argued that some government officials misappropriate funds because they know government is corrupt and will misappropriate funds. Thus, they steal public funds to ensure they benefit from government funds and don’t miss out. They steal public funds to avoid the barrenness corruption brings when you’re not part of the process. They are being corrupt to escape the effects of corruption. This is not a justification of corruption but rather a realisation that when corruption is pervasive, it provides a deeper impetus to engage in corruption. This is not only because one can get away with it, but also because there is an urgency to get to the money first before someone else comes in and takes it instead.
Devolution is also adding an interesting dynamic to corruption it seems. When Kenya was governed under a centralised system, grand corruption was a distant affair that benefited a limited circle of individuals. A farmer in rural Kenya could not conceive how he/she would ever get a kickback in the circle of corruption. Devolution has changed this. When county officials divert public finances to their pockets, much of that money remains within the county economy. The money can be used to finance household expenses, education and health costs, as well as generally improve the quality of life of the corrupt individual and those in their circle. Diverted public monies also become investment funds, where corrupt individuals suddenly have a supply of cash that can be directed to business activity. I have travelled to counties where I have been openly told that this building or that business belongs to a government official. This government official did not have these assets before gaining office, but suddenly they are serious financiers in the county. And interestingly, these facts are not shared with a tone of bitterness or annoyance, there almost seems to be an appreciation that even if public monies are being stolen, at least they are benefiting the local economy. After all, businesses are being financed, people are being employed to run and manage those businesses and suddenly there is a source of income for many that did not exist before.
This is not a justification of corruption but rather an exploration of how corruption is evolving. We seem to have moved on from the days when misappropriated public finances were sequestered in accounts in distant capitals of Europe and North America. Now when public money is stolen, much of it sticks around. How will this inform the fight against corruption? How do strategies that seek to address corruption need to be updated to become relevant again? These are questions for us all.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org