Corruption and Education

If there is a single powerful idea that, over the past thirty years, has become rooted in the minds of rulers, it is the power of education. Builders of nations, who used to earlier beg wealthy countries for the money and knowhow to construct roads and build factories, now ask for money and knowhow to build schools and colleges.   Despots, who earlier could control countries by offering citizens cheap rice and oil now know that the only way to control a nation’s citizens is by keeping them uneducated.

Education is freedom, we are taught. It is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army, said the American statesman Edward Everett. But what makes it so?  The knowledge to build a country’s dams, ports and power plants, the opening of the mind to welcome criticism, the ability to run a clean government?

Stop right there. The ability to run a clean government improves with education, did you just write? Yes, one might answer, most well-run, clean governments are found in countries with high levels of literacy – countries such as Sweden and Switzerland.    On the other hand, countries with low levels of literacy – Guinea, for instance – suffer from rampant corruption.

Unfortunately, however, the opposite is not true, at the top end. While it is true that low literacy levels almost always mean high levels of corruption, high levels of literacy do not mean low levels of corruption. Russia and China are just two of many examples of countries with literacy rates of over ninety five per cent whose citizens live within the world’s most corrupt environments. Why is this?

The puzzle starts to become clearer if we accept that corruption is a symptom of the lack of appreciation of certain little understood ethical values. The dominant ethical value of most societies today is that a citizen is morally bound to obey the law in order to keep himself whole. This is over and above the legality of one’s behaviour.   A citizen is certainly required, by the laws of the land, to obey the law, else he will be punished. However, this is not an ethic, in the sense of being a defining principle of action. The ethic which encourages a citizen to obey the law is that it protects him (and those he consider his own, such as his family) from the personal loss of income, stature and other things which he values. It is, at its core, an ethic derived from responsibility to oneself.

As a stand-alone ethic, this is one of those that is sure to fail. This is because it is challenged by one’s definition of one’s needs versus the risk of personal loss. A poor man can argue that, if he did not steal food, he would starve (i.e., has nothing to lose), so it is ethical for him to break the law – and who would disagree with that?  It is but a small step for someone slightly higher up in the economic ladder to feel it is okay to steal in order to give his family a roof over their heads. One yet a step further up the ladder will argue for the right to steal to support a decent education for his children. Thus, does the ethic of moral behavior to stay within the law get corrupted in people’s minds, as their requirements escalate, until finally, a politician or a judge thinks nothing of pocketing a million dollars on the grounds that he, too, deserves as decent a living upon retirement as he has during his working life.

So, what are those little known ethical values that can sustain integrity in society? I will discuss just one, due to the shortage of space. It is the ethic of inclusion, i.e, we are morally bound to behave well as a group rather than as individuals. It is different from the ethic of personal responsibility and is an ethic of community responsibility. It forces us to consider and give equal weight to the effects of our actions on others as on ourselves. So, even the poorest of men can no longer think that stealing food from a grocery shop is ethical since their needs now conflict with the needs of the grocers. This, in turn, forces the poor to search for other strategies: for instance, to collectively agitate for their right to be fed, and thus argue that the state must put aside resources to look after the poor.

It might sound farfetched to think the poor have the power of collective action given their desperate state – but history is replete with such examples – the repeal of the Corn Laws in Britain in the 19th century, for instance, while the Arab Spring of 2011 is the most recent.

Turning now to education and corruption, education fails to stem corruption when the ethic on which education is promoted is that it will make the individual successful, rather than that it will enable a community to be successful. In a society motivated by personal ethics, an educated man views his education as a personal achievement intended to be used for personal benefit. For instance, if his personal achievement allows him to be a judge of the High Court, it merely raises the gain from corrupt behaviour – he can, due to his better education, siphon off larger sums from society than his poorly educated fellow citizens. Thus, in such societies, rising rates of education actually become a cause of rising corruption, rather than stemming it. The knowledge to build a country’s dams, ports and power plants in such societies does not guarantee that the world’s best dams, ports and power plants will be built.  This is why newly emerging societies like China and India are seeing a rise in corruption and income inequality even as these countries develop.

By contrast, in a society driven by the ethic of community responsibility, education is viewed as the gift of an obligation to participate in a process of inclusive benefits among one’s less educated brethren. In such a society, economic growth is accompanied by reduced income inequality and low corruption.

Unfortunately, there are no modern examples at hand. This is because all modern emerging economies view notions of community responsibility as being contradictory to the needs of today’s market economy. However, the Scandinavian countries show that there need be no contradiction – Scandinavians are steeped in the ethic of community responsibility while achieving high levels of economic growth and participation in the global economy – surely, a goal worthy of the consideration by tomorrow’s global leaders.

By:  Dr. Rafiq Dossani, CEO, College Builder

Senior Research Scholar, Asia-Pacific Research Center and Professor in the International Relations Programme, Stanford University



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