On March 30, 2023, I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd Summit for Democracy: Indo-Pacific Regional Meeting in Seoul. The summit focused on the Challenges and Progress in Addressing Corruption. I’d like to share three main takeaways from both my time in Seoul and at the summit.
First, the Republic of Korea (popularly known as South Korea), is a remarkable country. Over the years, I have written about South Korea’s incredible achievements and how their development story could serve as a model for other countries. But seeing their development gave me a deeper appreciation for the country’s progress. On landing in Seoul, not only was the warmth of the Koreans in full display, but the level of advancement and development–even when compared with wealthy countries–was impressive. It is hard to believe that South Korea was poorer than many African countries barely six decades ago.
In our book, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, my co-authors and I write about South Korea’s extraordinary development. It has been called a “miracle” by many observers and experts. But what I saw wasn’t a miracle. What I saw and experienced was a community of incredibly hardworking people who believed in their potential to change not only their country, but also the world for the better. Their commitment to progress and prosperity, anchored in innovation, was palpable. Naturally, this got me thinking about many countries that remain poor today.
In The Prosperity Paradox, we write about South Korea’s investment in market-creating innovations which transform complicated and expensive products into simple and affordable ones. These innovations serve so many more people in society and, as a result, create jobs, boost tax revenues, and ultimately change the culture of a place. Companies such as Samsung, LG, Kia, and Hyundai have invested to create new markets in consumer electronics, automobiles, home appliances, and other products and services. Not only have they become household names globally, but they have also brought prosperity to South Korea. In turn, this prosperity has helped South Korea more effectively combat corruption, the main theme of the summit.
The second take-away from the summit, after listening to many senior government leaders and global experts on the frontlines on the war against corruption, was that there seemed to be consensus that corruption is eroding our democratic values yet political, business, and civil society leaders have no effective means of beating corruption. In short, corruption is winning, according to the data available. Here is how Transparency International, the global anti-corruption watchdog, put it in their latest report.
“The global average remains unchanged for over a decade at just 43 out of 100. More than two-thirds of countries score below 50, while 26 countries have fallen to their lowest scores yet. Despite concerted efforts and hard-won gains by some, 155 countries have made no significant progress against corruption or have declined since 2012.”
Again, naturally, this got me thinking about another issue. How is it that we all know corruption is bad, we all seem to be committed to eradicating it, and yet, corruption keeps on winning? Clay Christensen, the late Harvard Business School professor and co-founder of the Christensen Institute, would often say of seemingly complex problems that seem to evade good solutions, “I think we have the categories wrong.” I believe that’s the case with how we are tackling corruption.
Many anti-corruption fighters have categorized corruption primarily as a deeply moralistic issue as opposed to an economic one. Corruption thrives when there is scarcity. And although a nation’s values impact its level of corruption, it’s rarely enough to eradicate it. For instance, money, votes, licenses, and access are scarce. As a result, many people, especially in poor countries, will hire corruption to get access to those things. Understanding the relationship between corruption and scarcity will give us a better chance of mitigating it in society.
The final takeaway from the summit was the role of technology in fighting corruption. In our session, I stressed the point that technology, by itself, will not impact corruption, and can even make it worse. Technology must, first and foremost, be used to create prosperity before it can practically reduce corruption. I pointed to the fact that virtually all the countries on the top of the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for the past decade have been wealthy countries. And all at the bottom of the index are poor, or at war. When you fight corruption, it fights back and to win the war against corruption: to enact and enforce laws, find and prosecute corrupt actors, and to change the culture from one where many hire corruption to one where many hire innovation requires significant resources. Technology alone will not solve corruption; progress will.
While in South Korea, I observed the incredible commitment of many people working hard every day to make the world a less corrupt place. From the passion of Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International to the passion and deep devotion of Maria Ressa, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner, it was clear that corruption had evolved from a practice largely defined by the abuse of public power for private gain. Corruption was now almost everywhere and we all needed to be a part of the solution. But for us to solve corruption, we’d need to invest to create prosperity first.