The impeachment proceedings currently underway in the United States are highlighting an important issue: corruption in economically developed states. With much of the global conversation about corruption focusing mostly on the types or forms of corruption found in countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean and not nearly enough on those in North America and Europe, there tends to be a general perception in the global consciousness that economically developed states are “less corrupt” and if there is a problem, it is not as damaging. Banking scandals in places like Switzerland or the problem of special interests in Washington, DC, for instance, don’t quite carry the same whiff of corruption as the purchase of an opulent home in some exotic location by a Togolese government official even though the dollar amounts in the former far outweigh those in the latter and even though in all cases resources that are meant to serve the public good are being diverted to private use or the sustenance of the wealth, status and power of a few.
With Togo, for instance, observers are quick to draw connections between the corruption and the economic condition of the country, but despite rising income inequality in the economically developed world, they are not as quick to make those same connections. Moreover, it continues to be much easier to see “bribery” or “corruption” in how the Togolese official may have attained his loot than in how a public official in the West might, say, fund his or her re-election campaign. The directness or manner of the exchange rather than its intended result—the advancement or maintenance of the private interests of a few—it appears, determines what is considered improper. We can blame this on the ill- (or limited) definition of the term “corruption,” or we can bring it closer to home and call it willful blindness.
For those with eyes to see, however, the impeachment proceedings are demonstrating how skewed perceptions of corruption have the pernicious effect of masking the enormous economic, social and political costs that it exacts in the economically developed world. The most prominent of these being the erosion of the legitimacy of institutions and the weakening, indeed destruction, of democracy. For those with ears to hear, the proceedings are saying there should be no comfort in the idea that “at least it’s not as bad as in Africa.”