Corruption's Hidden Benefit

Corruption's Hidden Benefit

A high level of corruption in an oil-producing economy, oddly, can actually lessen the chances of armed conflict.

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The source: “Buying Peace? Oil Wealth, Corruption, and Civil War, 1985–99” by Hanne Fjelde, in Journal of Peace Research, March ­2009.

No peace researcher would be caught dead endorsing cor­ruption, but Hanne Fjelde, a Ph.D. candidate at Uppsala University in Sweden, proposes a “more nuanced” view of the role of political payoffs in oil-rich countries. It has long been thought that oil wealth raises the likelihood of civil war as surely as heat rises from a fire. But a high level of corruption in an oil-producing economy has a countervailing effect. Corrupt leaders can use their oil wealth to buy off potential opponents, and the chances of armed conflict appear to diminish as the corruption gets ­worse.

Public corruption prolongs poverty and worsens economic inequality. It hampers economic growth and siphons money from projects that benefit all. But it can also co-opt restive groups and give them an economic stake in main­taining the status quo. Gabon, Libya, and Saudi Arabia illustrate how doling out oil largess has been used to buy stability, according to Fjelde. Gabon buys off the middle class through public expenditures, for example. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi has staved off opposition to his rule for long periods by paying off political competition, and Saudi Arabia has made military staffing decisions a key route to personal enrichment. Cameroon has used its ­oil-­export wealth to pacify restive ethnic groups.

Patronage allows the “ruler to selectively target supporters, while expending as little of the pie as possible,” says Fjelde. Several corrupt countries that have been plagued by civil war lack oil wealth that can be doled out to regime opponents—Haiti, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Uganda among them.

Although ­oil-­based economies are especially conducive to corruption because of the extraordinary wealth that’s available, oil is not the only source of such bonanzas. Civil war was largely kept at bay in Zaire until the foreign aid with which Mobutu Sese Seko bribed his opponents was withdrawn in the ­1990s.

Rather than dismiss political corruption as nothing but a terrible scourge of dysfunctional ­oil-­rich nations, policymakers should consider whether corruption is a “de­fault option for soliciting support where state institutions are weak.” If the international community wants a warning signal of civil war, Fjelde writes, its leaders should monitor the social consequences in countries when the money runs out to pay the ­bribes.

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