Corruption and Development

Stephen DeAngelis

September 21, 2006

Reactions against corruption are beginning to surface in some interesting areas. Yemen is a good example. Better known as the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and for the attack on the USS Cole, Yemen is making news this year for its resurgent democratic fervor. Faiza Saleh Ambah, writing in the Washington Post, discussed how courageous Yemenis flocked to support an anti-corruption candidate running for president against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for more than 28 years [“Technocrat Recasts Yemen’s Presidential Race, Political Future,” 20 Sep 2006]. Ambah writes:

When Faisal bin Shamlan was approached several months ago by a coalition of opposition groups to run in this week’s presidential election, he turned down the offer. The 72-year-old economist, who had resigned as oil minister to protest corruption, was enjoying his days reading and going on long, solitary walks.

Eventually, however, bin Shamlan agreed to run. As a result, he turned what was predicted to be a run away farce election into a real horse race. Bin Shamlan’s “decision has been a boon for democracy in Yemen and set up a key test for reform in the region. By going up against an all-powerful president who has maintained his grip on the country for almost three decades, bin Shamlan broke a barrier of fear. And, he says, he is arresting the country’s slide toward hereditary rule.”

“There was a real danger of Yemen turning into a republic-monarchy, where presidents-for-life groom their sons to take over, like in Egypt and Syria,” bin Shamlan said. “That was one of the main points that made me determined. Out of this election, at least we have made it almost impossible for [Saleh] to groom his son.”

Saleh used the full resources of the government to oppose bin Shamlan and his coalition. Government activities included “the arrest of supporters for carrying or putting up posters of bin Shamlan, employing army checkpoints to block supporters from attending his rallies, and using state media to promote support of Saleh. Despite such alleged activities, bin Shamlan’s rallies have generally been full, drawing up to 100,000 people in some provinces.” The intimidation worked and Saleh retained his presidency. Had bin Shamlan won, his first priority would have been to reduce the power of the executive branch and strengthen the Yemeni Parliament. Bin Shamlan was supported by a coalition of five opposition parties that were willing to set aside philosophical differences in order to try and save democracy in Yemen. Considering the political situation throughout the rest of the Middle East, these groups demonstrated both courage and foresight.

Even with the election over, the danger to those who supported bin Shamlan isn’t.

Hamid al-Ahmar, the charismatic son of Islah leader Abdullah al-Ahmar, told the crowd that bin Shamlan’s campaign had sown terror in the hearts of the authorities. “Thank you for your courage in coming today, despite all the troubles you had to go through, and you might still face, for showing us your support,” he said as about 20,000 people cheered.

Another country making news is Thailand, where the military seized power while the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York to meet with other leaders and address the UN General Assembly. Although this is a setback for democracy, according to a Washington Post article by Ron Corben [“Thai Army Leaders Depose Prime Minister,” 20 Sep 2006], the coup, “the first in 15 years in a country where many people believed that military seizures of power were a thing of the past,” was seen as a strike against corruption.

Thaksin, a former senior police official who built a fortune in the telecommunications industry, has faced street protests for much of the year over allegations of corruption, abuse of power and a bungling response to a Muslim insurgency. … Street protests that had begun with a murmur late last year found voice in January after Thaksin’s family sold its shares in Shin Corp., a telecommunications and satellite company, to Singapore’s Temasak Holdings for $1.9 billion, tax-free.

The fact that Thaksin had been trying to stack army leadership with his supporters probably had a lot to do with the timing of the coup. The fact that grass roots efforts to address corruption are emerging is important. Corruption remains an anchor keeping underdeveloped nations from progressing. Corruption is the first thing that must be addressed after security has been established if a Development-in-a-Box approach is to gain enough traction to make a difference.