Giving money to corrupt Third World leaders not the answer

Charles J. Haughey is not the only politician with a taste for the good life, fine food and expensive clothes

Charles J. Haughey is not the only politician with a taste for the good life, fine food and expensive clothes. In fact, compared to several leaders of developing countries, Charlie's lifestyle is positively Spartan.

In a Jakarta courtroom over the coming days and weeks details of how former Indonesian president Suharto embezzled £355 million will be discussed. Estimates of the wealth corruptly acquired by the 79-year-old retired general during his 32-year dictatorship range as high as $15 billion and even $40 billion.

Another in the same mould was Mobutu Sese Seko who ruled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for 30 years until his overthrow in 1996. He had at least 12 palaces in Zaire and luxury homes in France, Morocco and the US. On several occasions he hired Concorde to fly him and his family to New York for shopping sprees.

Nice work if you can get it. But unfortunately the money to support this opulence was stolen from his people, who were among the poorest on Earth.


Nobody will ever know exactly how much money Mobutu spent in those three decades of madness, but it is conservatively estimated to be at least $4 billion or $5 billion. However, the really scandalous aspect of the Mobutu story is that for many years the World Bank and the IMF threw dollars at Zaire knowing full well that it was being stolen by the country's leader.

We in Ireland are learning some timely lessons about the devastating effect that corruption in high places can have on a society. With any luck the revelations of the various tribunals and inquiries will have the long-term effect of making Irish politics and business more open and transparent.

In the Third World, however, it is a different story. Governments in many developing countries have been stealing from their people so systematically and over such long periods that whole economies are in tatters and entire populations are suffering hugely, often to the point of death.

Corruption and theft are still the order of the day in many developing countries, and still international aid money, which, of course, is meant for development and humanitarian projects, is being siphoned off in huge amounts.

The catalogue of crooked rulers is a long and sorry one. Here are just a few examples:

President Charles Taylor of Liberia creams off millions by charging diamond-smugglers from Sierra Leone a percentage to get their illegal gems through his country and on to the international market.

Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines had at least $1 billion in the bank by the time of his overthrow in 1986 and his lifestyle and that of his family, especially his wife, Imelda, are legendary.

After the Nigerian military dictator, Gen Sani Abacha, died in 1998 huge amounts of stolen cash were retrieved from his house and from members of his family. His wife, Maryam, was stopped at the airport with 38 suitcases that turned out to be stuffed with foreign currency. His son, who owned two Ferraris, had $100 million in cash in his house.

Almost a billion in cash was retrieved, but that might well have been just the tip of the iceberg. Last year it was reported that a staggering $55 billion stolen by various politicians in Nigeria is in British bank accounts.

In March Oscar Espinoza Villareal, a former mayor of Mexico City and close associate of Mexico's former president, Ernesto Zedillo, was charged with embezzling $50 million.

In the Ivory Coast last September, 20 civil servants were arrested in connection with embezzling £22 million in aid money from the EU.

Western governments, including ours, have over the years given many billions of pounds in aid to developing countries. Much of this money has been used, with varying degrees of success, for the purpose that it was meant for, but an unknown amount, certainly hundreds of millions, has been quite literally stolen.

It is totally inexplicable that, despite repeated proof of large-scale and widespread theft, governments persist in giving huge amounts of money to the perpetrators of these crimes.

The trend in recent years among Western governments is to move away from giving money to other governments, and this is to be welcomed. However, the Irish Government, for some extraordinary reason, is still tied to a bilateral type of arrangement with a number of countries and I would seriously question the wisdom of this policy.

In the countries that GOAL has dealt with, I have seen little interest shown in the well-being of their own people by governments. My contention is that it would be more prudent to keep aid money out of the grasping hands of these corrupt governments.

I contend that the Irish people would rather see their money spent on clinics for the sick, schools for the illiterate, houses for the homeless or food for the starving than on new cars or yachts for the fabulously wealthy. Still less do they want their hard-earned money spent on supporting wars and revolutions.

The safest way that the Irish Government can make sure that development aid money gets to where it is intended, and nowhere else, is to follow the lead of other donor countries and cut other governments out of the equation altogether and instead route their foreign aid budgets through NGOs, missionaries and international agencies with a proven track record.

This grand larceny from the poorest people on Earth by their leaders must surely rank among the vilest of crimes against humanity. In my view no right-thinking government with knowledge of these facts could even contemplate doing business with these people.

Africa as a continent has been particularly badly affected by corruption. But there is perhaps some light at the end of the tunnel. In February last year an organisation called the African Parliamentarians Network against Corruption was established with representatives from Benin, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

In a joint declaration, members of the Network said: "Corruption poses a grave danger to the wellbeing of African peoples and to the development of their countries. It diverts scarce resources from basic human needs and destroys confidence in the integrity of our institutions."

One can only wish them well in their noble endeavours: acceptance that there is a problem is after all the first step to solving that problem, but I remain sceptical about their chances of success so ingrained is corruption in the African psyche. Just this week both Uganda and Kenya have promised anti-corruption campaigns.

In Kenya's case this is part of what has turned out to be a successful bid to win back financial support from the International Monetary Fund which had suspended aid in 1997 because of rampant corruption.

Last week the IMF approved a loan of $198 million to Kenya in return for promises of increased policing of the civil service and the introduction of systems of accountability. Some Kenyans are openly expressing shock at the disclosure that President Moi has a personal fortune of $3 billion.

The Irish Government should take a leaf from the IMF book and tell these crooked administrations to clean up their act if they want aid money. The British government has recently given beneficiary countries a couple of years to stamp out corruption and if they fail to do so then the aid will stop.

That corruption is the single biggest obstacle to sustainable aid for the poor in the developing world is beyond argument.

John O'Shea is director of GOAL, the Third World relief and development agency