Understanding Corruption and the Imperative of Systemic Solutions

September 22, 2023

In Hebrew, a saying exists: "A hole in the fence invites the thief". It underscores the idea that vulnerabilities can tempt anyone with weak values. For instance, if that person encounters a fence with a hole that leads to a tree bearing irresistibly delicious fruit, the temptation to reach through and pluck some is considerable.

Similarly, the Serbian language shares a message with a different expression: "A person who works with honey cannot resist dipping a finger and indulging." These expressions emphasize the intrinsic human inclination to yield to temptation to which those with questionable values succumb.

The common thread among these three expressions is the recognition of the normalcy of temptation and human responses to it, and if it involves people with weak values it could be labeled as corrupt.

Why do developing countries tend to exhibit higher levels of corruption? The answer lies in their underdeveloped legal and regulatory frameworks, coupled with insufficient enforcement. Many of these nations skipped the phase of indigenous industrialization, it was done by foreign colonial or multinational companies. Consequently, the local populace did not identify with or adhere to the imported rules and policies. They clung to traditional, tribal norms, which eroded as urbanization and industrialization progressed, leaving behind a regulatory void.

For example, during the early 1970s, I was asked to help Ghana address a measles outbreak that claimed the lives of two thousand children . The vaccines were locked in a warehouse to prevent theft, but the lack of proper release procedures led to their never reaching the children. Similarly, in a case involving a Mexican company importing products from China, communication breakdowns led to resources being embezzled.

However, it's crucial to note that the problem of systemic weaknesses isn't exclusive to developing nations. Developed countries also grapple with vulnerabilities, as their regulatory frameworks often fail to adapt to the rapid pace of change. For instance, Russia, despite being developed, faces corruption issues stemming from its tumultuous history, where each major shift created legal ambiguities and opportunities for exploitation.

Attempting to change human nature of corrupt people, no matter how many are apprehended and imprisoned or how much we strive to discourage corruption, it persists as long as there are tempted corrupt people and a hole in the fence that calls them to realize the temptation.

In combating corruption, it's imperative to first examine systemic weaknesses before passing judgment on individuals. Understanding that human nature is susceptible to temptation underscores the importance of shoring up the "fence" through effective rules, policies, and communication mechanisms to minimize opportunities for corruption.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes