Teaching People Not To Be Corrupt Could Save Millions Of Lives

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

On his trip to Ethiopia last month, President Obama called on African leaders to end what he called “the cancer of corruption” that plagues the continent. The use of public or private funds for personal gain is especially rampant in Africa: a quarter of its combined GDP was “eaten up” by corruption in 2004, according to a report by the African Union.

African countries aren’t the only ones suffering real human costs for unethical business practices. Corruption takes a particularly heavy toll in developing countries which lack the political and economic infrastructure to effectively regulate businesses.

“In developing countries, corruption is a killer,” said David McNair of the advocacy organization ONE. “Up to 3.6 million lives could be saved if we end the web of secrecy that helps the criminal and corrupt. When governments are deprived of their own resources to invest in the essentials — like nurses and teachers — the human cost is devastating.”

The $2.2 trillion dollars that ONE estimates the developing world lost to corruption last year could have been used to educate 10 million children a year, provide anti-retroviral drugs to 11 million people, or purchase 165 million vaccines.

Given the challenges of trying to spot and stop corruption, a new initiative has taken a different approach, one focused on prevention.

“If we start from business schools, then at least we can start developing a perspective then gradually it could gain momentum and make an impact in five or 10 years’ time,” Shiv P. Tripathu, a business professor who helped develop the curriculum, told ThinkProgress.

He and nearly two dozen other business professors from around the world teamed up to develop a curriculum to teach students how to determine if a business is engaged in corrupt practices — or how to stop them. While many business schools require coursework on ethics, the researchers noted a serious lack of coursework that would teach students how to deal with unethical behavior on the job.

“We didn’t find anti-corruption included as a topic in business education curricula,” he said.

And so, Tripathi and his colleagues developed a toolkit that includes key themes, readings, debate questions, and case studies to better equip students to recognize and remedy corruption in their future jobs.

The toolkit, which is free to use, has so far been adopted by at least 60 business schools around the world including those in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa, the three countries that tested it as a pilot project.

One of the biggest hurdles to initiating the anti-corruption coursework has been is getting students to understand the basic concept of corruption. That’s because unethical dealings are so pervasive that students aren’t even aware that they’re unethical.

“In some cases,” Tripathi said, “bribery might not be perceived as a crime. That makes this more challenging.”   In using the toolkit in classes in Tanzania and in India, he found that students pushed back on the idea that it was wrong to afford oneself with massive compensation packages for working as an executive or on international projects. Many saw the practices as justified until Tripathi introduced impact analysis that showed how such packages might negatively effect business profits, functions, or even ripple out to other sectors.

“I found that the students’ difficulty in dealing with these concepts increases with the degree of the institutionalization of corruption in the particular context [they are in],” he said.

Part of the problem might also have to do with how much laws on corruption vary from country to country.

“In some countries, the systems have developed in such a way that some corrupt practices are not illegal, but if you look at them from a third party level, you’ll see that they are not justified. Internally, the system may have evolved in such a way that gives the message that they are very much justified. Dealing with these types of systems is challenging. What we’ve seen is that what works in such contexts is impact analysis: the more you bring in the impact of corruption in day-to-day life, in [students’] communities, in their societies, then they start thinking about it.”

Tripathi said getting as many business school students as possible to understand the wide-ranging effects of corruption — and how to combat it — are the immediate goals of the effort. In time, however, he thinks business ethics and anti-corruption policies will become standardized across the world. At that point, curricula similar to sort he and his fellow professors developed might be a requirement across the board.