Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

There is little doubt that corruption is a principal motive behind the wave of protests sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa.

In diverse national contexts, ranging from Lebanon and Iraq to Algeria and beyond, angry demonstrators have blamed rampant and systemic corruption for the many ills of the political-economic orders governing their societies.

Western commentators and experts at international financial and development organisations have contributed to the anticorruption discourse, claiming that corruption, cronyism and other practices of state capture have been the most powerful factors behind the region’s dismal and exclusionary development record. By the same token, corruption, and more generally bad governance, has often been emphasised as the main reason for the inability of countries in the region to engage competitively and efficiently in the global economic order.

I am sceptical of this discourse. Even though the anticorruption language has proved to be a powerful instrument in popular mobilisations against politically bankrupt and venal elites, it has also veiled many of the structural aspects of the crises of countries in the region and their political economies. Certainly, corruption is a big problem, but it is not the root of all problems as portrayed by activists and echoed by foreign commentators and experts. This reductionist view obscures more than it clarifies, and gets in the way of tackling the causes of the lack of inclusive growth.

Corruption is about distribution of national wealth in a way that serves the immediate lucrative interests of those in power — and their cronies and relatives — at the expense of the general public. But these Middle East and North African countries have problems in producing economic value for distribution to start with. Most have rentier economic structures, with little ability to develop productive sectors that can compete globally while creating high-quality jobs and hence achieve inclusive growth.

This rentierism is by no means confined to those rich in natural resources, often oil and gas, like Iraq, Libya, Algeria and the Gulf monarchies. It extends well into secondary-rentier economies that have historically received recycled rents through workers’ remittances, intra-government aid and credit from oil-rich countries or beyond, as with Lebanon’s diaspora in the West.

The bottom line is that almost all of these countries are integrated into the global division of labour as recipients of rent, either emanating from outside their borders or from very narrow sectors like extractives, in which few participate in the creation of value.

This rentierism is one of the causes rather than effects of corruption and patronage in natural resource-rich countries like Iraq and Algeria and secondary rentier economies such as Lebanon. Given the heavy dependence of these economies and states on rents, incumbents enjoy considerable autonomy from their citizens. They also have the resources to establish narrow coalitions of cronies and clients in order to keep them in office, either through some facade of ethnosectarian democracy, as in Lebanon and Iraq, or on much more explicitly authoritarian terms.

Another dimension that is almost completely forgotten with the corruption-explains-all approach is the problematic trajectories of state formation in many of the region's countries. Iraq and Lebanon, for instance, face big problems in nation-building that have historically led to weak states devoured by ethnosectarian groups — often with armed militias attached to them — that colonised the state and captured public funds. Once again, corruption and clientelism are the effects rather than the cause of weak nation-states that lack even the monopoly of force within their own territories.

Beyond the domestic and regional dynamics, overemphasising corruption as the cause behind the region's miseries also ignores how the implementation of rounds of austerity under the auspices of the IMF  and the World Bank have cut public investment without replacing it with private investment. In fact, much of the deplored corruption was the result of World Bank-sponsored privatisation of state-owned assets.

Blaming corruption has served to show the Washington consensus as a good programme that was implemented poorly. This allowed for implicit — and sometimes explicit — blaming of the victims as being too corrupt to develop, despite the close ties that have bound many of the region's elites with Western powers.

These systematic factors might tell us why Asian economies could generate inclusive growth despite rampant corruption and poor governance indicators while the Middle East and North Africa could not. In general, fighting corruption is a great slogan that has mobilised people across the region against incumbent elites that have failed to guide their societies to better lives. But fighting corruption should not be confused with a development strategy in its own right, or taken as the diagnosis for the many and much deeper troubles facing that part of the world.

• Adly is an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo.