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Courtesy of Cornell University

November 16, 2017

Former Chief World Bank Economist Says We Should Anticipate New Forms of Corruption

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Former Chief Economic Advisor of the Indian government and former Chief Economist at the World Bank Prof. Kaushik Basu, economics, addressed the roots of bureaucratic corruption in a talk on Thursday.

Ineffective bureaucracies, Basu said, are not a product of the actions of a few, but rather arise when strings of members in leadership are invested in fraudulent behavior.

“My hunch would be that 90 percent of Indian bureaucrats and politicians were not corrupt,” he said of his time in government. “But if 10 percent is corrupt, that’s a large segment, and it begins to make a difference.”

When a new leader attempts to dissolve corruption where it is pervasive and where complex and abundant laws contradict each other, Basu said, the result is often a campaign that silences dissent.

“Your survival depends on going more and more after the dissenters,” Basu said. “The true anti-corruption agenda vanishes somewhere along the line, and we have seen totalitarian controls being established in countries by exactly this process.”

Basu recounted that many government scandals unfolded during his time as CEA. These events in India culminated in massive anti-corruption protests.

These protests, Basu said, channeled widespread anger that in his opinion did not necessarily present solutions to the tricky problem of corruption.

In addition to public determination, the elimination of corruption in a system “needs design, intelligence and research as well,” Basu said.

Design, Basu explained, begins when a problem is identified and individual incentives are examined by lawmakers. The next fundamental step is open discourse.

In one specific incident as CEA, Basu was invited to debate a proposed policy on bribery in a televised national debate.

Unsure about whether he should accept the offer, Basu turned to the Prime Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, who disagreed with Basu’s stance.

However, cognizant of the importance of conversation, Singh advised Basu to accept the offer in an effort to initiate a conversation among the public.

“There is something to be said about openness and being able to discuss — not shutting down dissent,” Basu said. “This is an aspect of India which I actually cherished during the period that I was there.”

Central to effective design is consideration of the implementation of technology in governments today, Basu said, as they can diminish corruption such as through voting fraud reform.

These new technological tools, however, do not come without a cost.

“With every new technology and every new law that you make, the human mind is endlessly capable of cleverly getting around that, so there will be some new kinds of corruption that could come about.”

Basu, a proponent of considering questions of anthropology and sociology in the conversation regarding corruption, urged his audience to nonetheless believe in the power of morals to prevail.

“Today we know that norms change, but that is the first step,” Basu said. “Now we need to know why norms change, how norms change, so that we can trigger and cause some of those better changes.”