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13 พฤษภาคม 2015
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Politicising corruption can do more harm than good

 Boonwara Sumano

Politics and corruption not only share many things in common, but also have a strong link to one another. They both concern power and evidently have significant impacts on national development and people’s well-being.

Political leaders may be accused of various unacceptable behaviours, such as inefficiency and sexual immorality, but what brings them down in the end is often allegations of corruption. For quite a while now, corruption has been used as a legitimate claim to instigate political movements, but this is actually harmful to the attempt to eradicate corruption itself.

The entanglement between politics and corruption has led to many problems in our country. Since the series of mass protests – the organisers and participants of which cited widespread government corruption as the rationale behind their actions – were abruptly ended by the latest coup, Thai society has been divided between a group of people who insist that corruption must be eradicated before an election can take place, and those who see no way of fighting corruption, except through democratic elections.

If anything positive came out of the most recent political unrest marathon, it might be the emergence of a civil society movement with corruption in its crosshairs.

In the past decade, many anti-corruption NGOs have been formed. Members of NGOs are usually attracted by a common cause – in this case, the ideology that corruption is an unacceptable practice that should be curbed and their collective actions can improve the situation.

Since NGOs have no official power and tend to have limited resources, their strategy is usually to put social pressure on the government and public staff by expanding their network of members. The most active and seemingly effective anti-corruption NGO at present is the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT), which has been able to propose various counter-corruption initiatives to the government. Among these are the Integrity Pact and the Act on Facilitation for Consideration of Approvals from the Government Agencies, BE 2558.

The ACT also enjoys membership of around 50 leading private associations and public institutions such as the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission, and the Federation of Thai Industries. Hence, it could be said that the ACT’s large membership helped strengthen its leverage with the government and was a crucial factor behind its success story.

However, while expanding networks has proved effective, this strategy must be employed with great care. As mentioned, NGOs are organised voluntarily, and hence, members are free to join group activities as they please. According to the collective action theory, there are at least two factors affecting group actions, namely membership size and the level of heterogeneity among group members.

Smaller groups with similar backgrounds can normally organise faster and more effectively than a group with a large and diverse membership, because members need to reconcile their different preferences about group activities, tools, and most importantly, the cost of collective action.

Moreover, as groups expand, the ability to monitor whether all members are still participating in group activity is reduced. This can lead to either a “one for all” situation in which only a few members continue contributing to the group while the majority wait for a free ride, or an example of the “tragedy of the commons”, in which individual members pursue their personal interests at the expense of the group’s resources.

This is when the connection between politics and corruption may create problems. While well-intentioned people may agree to join an anti-corruption NGO in order to collectively fight corruption, each of them does not necessarily share the same views on other issues, especially politics.

Even minor involvement in action with a political agenda may displease members of the group who have different political views. If group members believe that their contributions (whether labour, time or money) to the group are spent on something they do not consider to be their cup of tea, they may stop participating and leave the group. Therefore, if anti-corruption NGOs choose to expand membership as their main strategy, they need to stay focused on their group objective, ie to solve corruption problems.

In the past, there were a number of NGOs formed to fight corruption in Thailand that ended up being used for political purposes. A lack of trust among group members towards the group’s objective could eventually lead to a group’s downfall, as its members stopped participating in and contributing to collective action. Fighting corruption is already a difficult mission without involving politics, and there are certainly other means to overcome corruption besides overthrowing an allegedly corrupt government or changing a political regime. We have been there and done that many times, and it did not really improve corruption problems in the country.

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Boonwara Sumano, PhD, is Research Fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). This article is based on the author’s recent research project funded by the Thailand Research Fund (TRF). The article is solely the author’s view and may not be shared by TDRI nor TRF. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First published: ฺBangkok Post, May 13, 2015

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