When people are financially deprived, corruption makes psychological sense

A 2002 African Union study estimated that corruption cost Africa roughly $150 billion a year. With corruption getting worse on the continent, it is safe to estimate that Africa could be losing more than $200 billion to graft every year. In contrast, aid to Africa from international donors was $29 billion in 2017. The figures show what the continent can achieve on its own if it is able to stamp out corruption, especially considering that current output will more than double if things worked the way they should.

But the current reality is an Africa that may end up having the countries with the poorest people on earth.

The situation has always been blamed on bad leadership. It’s easy to come to that conclusion when there are leaders who go to unbelievable lengths to stay in power indefinitely. But aren’t leaders products of the society? Was Joseph de Maistre not right to have said that “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve”?

We asked Nigerians living in three major cities whether they think they are corrupt. 90 percent of respondents said outright “Nos”, while more than 9 percent requested that we asked in specific terms. Less than one percent gave answers like “I think I am. Corruption isn’t just about money. I think I am.”; “I never appeared for a driving test and I have a driving licence. That makes me corrupt, I guess.”; “Maybe. Just maybe”. 

More than five in every 10 persons we spoke to also admitted having used the resources of their employers for personal purposes.

Of course, using office paper and printer to print hundreds of Sunday School lecture papers every week should count as corruption. Having your office pay for a hotel accommodation you never used is a corrupt practice. Spending part of project funds in your care on personal needs counts as corruption. Humans are corrupt. But it gets worse, especially in places like Africa.

“When people are deprived, it’s completely normal–borderline universal–for them to act out,” said Adam Alter, Associate Professor of Marketing and Robert Stansky Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow at the NYU Stern School of Business.

“That’s how many of us cope with deprivation–by doing something, anything to change the experience,” he told The Nerve Africa.

In what seems to explain why corruption has become the norm in many African societies and indiscipline is the order of the day, Alter, who is also a psychologist and lived in Africa for seven years said: “In the case of chronic financial deprivation, it’s hard to feel supported by the system that perpetuates your deprivation, so flouting that system’s laws and turning to corruption and disorder makes psychological sense.”

This also explains why those convicted of corrupt practices never really show any remorse and still enjoy an unbelievable acceptance by the society. It also helps one understand why many young people who bore the brunt of the corrupt practices of past leaders become leaders themselves only to continue the trend.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari promised to fight corruption ahead of his election in 2015. Two years later, Transparency International said corruption perception worsened in the country. Maybe the Nigerian leader tried his best and fought graft as much as he could, but it’s a very difficult battle to win.

Alter, who wrote New York Times Bestseller Drunk Tank Pink agrees. “Fixing the problem is more difficult,” he told The Nerve Africa. “The magic answer is to bestow people with a wage that allows them to live comfortably,” he added but argued “that’s not a realistic solution in much of Africa.”