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Corruption: hard to define, measure, stop

March 6th, 2009

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Michael Johnston

Corruption is not a simple problem, said the winner of the 2009 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

It is hard to define, difficult to measure and even trickier to stop, said Michael Johnston, a Colgate University political science professor who earned the prize for the ideas set forth in his 2005 book, “Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power and Democracy.”

Sometimes the best way to fight corruption is to “know what not to do,” he said in a public talk Thursday in Ekstrom Library’s Chao Auditorium.

“Most of us think competitive elections are a great way to usher in democracy,” Johnston said. “But in Kenya, a competitive election actually made things worse.”

Johnston began to develop his theory that there are four different kinds of corruption after comparing the level of corruption to the quality of life in more than 100 nations worldwide. He found that although highly corrupt countries often have a low quality of life, that is not always true.

“The more I studied this, the more I became convinced that corruption is not a ‘one size fits all’ phenomenon,” he said.

Corruption takes different forms depending on a country’s political and economic patterns, he found. The practice of using wealth to seek influence is common in the United States, Japan and Germany, while forming cartels to protect the elite is typically seen in Italy, Korea and Botswana, he said.

In Russia, Mexico and the Philippines, countries with liberal economies and weak civil societies, fair market competition is risky. But the worst type of corruption — the plundering of society by those who retain absolute power — is nearly always seen in countries with growing economies and weak institutions.

Understanding how corruption develops in a particular country can help stop it more effectively, Johnston said.

“People tend to think of corruption as bribery, but bribery is not always a factor. If you look at the United States, you won’t see a lot of big payoffs. The issues are different.”

Democratic nations that fail to deal with their own corrupt practices run the risk of damaging the credibility of democracy throughout the world, he said.

Johnston, a Fulbright Senior Specialist since 2006, has done extensive consulting in the field of public policy. Among the organizations he has assisted are the United Nations, U.S. State Department, World Bank, World Resources Institute and U.S. Agency for International Development.

Director of the Colgate University Research Council from 2003 to 2004, he was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., from 2002 to 2003 and a Colgate Presidential Scholar the same year. From 2000 to 2001, he directed Colgate’s Center for Ethics and World Societies.

He holds master’s and doctorate of philosophy degrees in political science from Yale University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Macalester College.

The Grawemeyer endowment at UofL awards $1 million each year — $200,000 each for works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, education and religion. The world order award was established in 1998.

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