Corruption: The Mother of Poverty [A corrupção é a mãe da pobreza]


António Barreto, a prominent Portuguese sociologist and political analyst, sounded a grim warning, in his weekly Sunday column of the popular Portuguese daily Público of 8 March 2009, to the growing number of the Portuguese who tend to believe that there are better values than being honest or regard as naïve those few who still cherish honesty. I liked his quote from the old philosopher Socrates to remind the Portuguese that if the dishonest had discovered the advantages of being honest, they would grab it, even be it for dishonesty’s sake! A pretty suave manner of marketing honesty to the dishonest in the land of “brandos costumes“.

I wish to present here some random reflections and some conclusions drawn from a PhD thesis that was successfully defended last week by Armando Rui Teixeira Santos, Professor in the Department of Law at the Universidade Lusófona (Lisboa), a long-time journalist and owner of the weekly Semanário since 1993. I was invited to be the research guide of this thesis in the Department of Political Science and International Relations.

The theme selected for research was “The Political Economy of Corruption: The case of Lusophone States”, a fascinating subject that has been causing heartache in these times of worldwide crisis. None will disagree that corruption is not the exclusive domain of any scientific area, though politicians may rightfully lay a greater claim to it. The thesis was a multidisciplinary exercise, sharing conceptual tools from Political Science, Economics, Law, and History. My defense of the concept of the `History of the Present’ may explain my interest and justify my involvement in research projects of this type. It represents also my efforts for discovering Portugal to Me. I had already guided the candidate in his MPhil dissertation a couple of years ago, and it turned out to be the first analysis of the kind undertaken in Portugal outside the realm of legal studies. The onset of the financial crisis motivated me to take up the theme for a deeper analysis in a PhD thesis.

To recall what I wrote thirty years ago in my doctoral thesis published as Medieval Goa (New Delhi, Concept, 1979, pp 152-153): “If the decline of the city (Goa, the capital of the Portuguese eastern empire) was gradual and the breakdown was never complete, this was due to the resilience its organisation had achieved. It was its constitutionally determined corruption that kept the Estado da Índia from falling apart.” That organisational and constitutional corruption could not leave the judicial system untouched. Diogo do Couto, the Portuguese chronicler and founder of the Goa Historical Archives, was writing in the early seventeenth century that in Goa “one who has more power can have more justice and this cobweb does not catch anything else than mosquitoes; a Gujarati is arrested and condemned for squatting while urinating; a Hindu is put in irons for quarrelling with another of his kind or for abusing him; but if a favourite of the authorities or a wealthy person breaks open the safes of a Hindu and takes away his goods by violence, it is considered a light issue and permissible.” It was not without good reason that among Goans who migrated to Mangalore it was common to curse and wish ill to someone by saying: Goyncho nyai tumcha matear poddum (May the justice from Goa fall upon your head), because it could be an endless procedure that would lead nowhere, but would not fail to exhaust those involved and their material resources.

One of the key issues to be studied in the PhD research under review was to know if the long Portuguese experience in corruption in its Asiatic empire, covered by the MPhil dissertation and now included as one of the three long appendices of the PhD thesis, made Portugal immune and resistant, or rather more fragile in the context of the new crises. Basing himself upon the findings contained in the reports of the Bank of Portugal, the reports of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and upon a CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) poll specially structured for the purpose of this study, the researcher comes to the conclusion that Portugal is not more corrupt than Italy, Spain or most East European Countries. He points out that in Western democracies there is a nexus between the media and scandals that are perversely used to magnify and project “scandals of corruption” in order to make political gains. Most noises subside after electoral gains are assured. Curiously, nearly 70 per cent of the respondents confirmed this trend and considered the political leaders and sports barons as the most corrupt. It was also interesting to note, that despite new legislation to curb corruption during the past decade, including the creation of a Council for Prevention of Corruption, the corruption has only increased. So much so that Portugal fell in the ranking from 28th to 32nd place from 2007 to 2008. From among the other Lusophone countries, Macau ranks 43, Cape Verde 47, Brazil 80, S. Tomé e Príncipe 121, Mozambique 126, East Timor 145, and Guinea-Bissau and Angola 158.

One of the most interesting features of the thesis is where it seeks to prove that corruption always causes poverty. This is illustrated with a diagram, where the losses caused by corruption (triangle represents the dead-weight) are shown as always greater than the gains of corruption. It is also concluded that there is a correspondence between the transparency rankings of the countries and their respective GNP, excepting cases like Angola and Timor, both oil producers with patrimonial income that do not need to overburden the citizens with taxes. In the case of Macau the income from casinos has a similar effect as in the previous two cases. For the rest, there is normally a correspondence between the levels of corruption and the levels of GNP. The levels of corruption are also reflected in other indices of public welfare or lack of it, such as education, health, civil liberties, etc, to which the Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has drawn the attention of the world in recent times.

The great challenge facing the world is now linked with the State initiatives to nationalise banks and engage in Keynesian projects. But are the governments prepared to check themselves while seeking to check the financial institutions? That’s what the next April summit of G20 will have to find out. In the case of Portugal, it has fine legislation, has entered the path of good democratic practices, there is no spiral of corruption to point to, but political stability and laxity of controls of democratic politics, and the old tradition of counting on “padrinho”, lead to a low and chronic or endemic type of corruption.

Congratulations to Dr Armando Rui Teixeira Santos for his insightful and courageous analysis, and I wish him fresh insights and courage following his participation during the coming weeks in the Georgetown Leadership Seminar of Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC. A rare and privileged opportunity indeed, but well earned.


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