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Why We Need to Kill the ‘Corruption is Cancer’ Analogy

By Paul M Heywood.

In this post Professor Paul Heywood gives three reasons to why the analogy of corruption as cancer is not just misplaced, but positively unhelpful for efforts to combat corruption.

When Pope Francis recently described corruption as ‘a cancer that consumes our lives’, he was just the latest in a very long line of world leaders and dignitaries to have done so (see here, here, here, here, and here). In fact, ever since James D Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, announced in 1996 that ‘we need to deal with the cancer of corruption’, it has become a virtual cliché to refer to the issue in such terms.

Indeed, the analogy was expressly justified on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blog in December 2013 by Nigel Baker, UK Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-16):

It is right to call corruption a cancer. When it grows in the body politic, sometimes imperceptibly, it has the ability rapidly and insidiously to infiltrate and destroy the organs of the state. Once embedded, it is very difficult to cut out. Metastasis across society is common. It prevents countries from developing and reaching their full potential, and destroys the ethical and moral foundation of a state.

There is, of course, a very long history of describing political failings and shortcomings through reference to illness or disease, evident across many different cultural contexts; an archetypal example of corruption seen in such terms – if a somewhat ironic one, in light of current perceptions indices – is Marcellus’ observation in Hamletthat ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.

My argument in this post is that the analogy of corruption as cancer is not just misplaced, but positively unhelpful for efforts to combat corruption. There are three main reasons for this.

What political body contracts the cancer of corruption?

First, whereas all cancers involve abnormal cell growth and reproduction within a body, there is no equivalent factual description of corruption; instead, despite widespread adoption of the idea of corruption as ‘the abuse of power for private gain’, the definition remains endlessly disputed (and almost certainly irresolvable). A particular issue, however, is how we should identify the ‘body’ that is being attacked by the cancer of corruption: what is the political equivalent to the human individual?

One answer, of course, is to equate the body with the entire world, and that seems to be what Pope Francis had in mind. But whilst corruption ‘spreading’ to different parts of the world might be seen as equivalent to a form of metastasis, that analogy works only at such a level of abstraction as to be simply trite. Instead, a much more established understanding of the ‘body politic’ in terms of analogy is the nation or the state over which a ruler exercises sovereign authority. Not only does that reflect common usage (see here, here and here), it also resonates with the dominant focus on the nation-state as the unit of analysis when it comes to researching and combating corruption.

This focus on the nation-state seems very deeply ingrained. At two separate workshops in recent months, my suggestion that we should reconsider using the nation-state as an appropriate unit of analysis for understanding corruption (given the increasing evidence that much of the most egregious corruption is transnational and that corruption also varies significantly within states) has met much resistance. If we don’t focus on the nation-state, I’ve been told, then we will have an uncontrollable proliferation of cases – as if somehow the only units of analysis available are either individuals or states.

Yet much corruption is plainly transnational: unlike cancer, which remains confined to an individual body no matter how far it spreads, these types of corruption always cut across different bodies politic. As Alexander Cooley and Jason Sharman persuasively argue in a new article, ‘the methodological nationalism that frames much research and policy on corruption skews our understanding of its increasingly transnational nature.’ The analogy with cancer only serves to reinforce that focus on individual nation states and what they supposedly need to do in order to rid themselves of the disease.

The question of choice

The second problem with the analogy is that it serves to underplay a sense of agency in our understanding of corruption. Although we know ever more about risk factors associated with cancer – some of which can be avoided, others not – it is difficult to conceive that people set out deliberately to get cancer. Indeed, it is not clear that it would be possible to do so: even though smoking is indisputably linked to lung cancer, for instance, not everyone who smokes succumbs; by the same token, other people who live the healthiest of lifestyles still get cancer.

The same cannot really be said of corruption. To engage in any corrupt exchange requires a conscious decision or choice to do so – even if, in social settings where corruption is deeply embedded and endemic, that ‘choice’ may seem so highly constrained as to be near meaningless. For much routine, day-to-day corruption which entails the payment of small-scale bribes, there is an element of truth in that. But, as has been pointed out in previous posts on this blog (see here, here, here and here), there are several factors relating to social norms, gender and identity that influence why and whether people engage in corruption, even in the most conflict-affected settings.

And the idea that choice is somehow constrained is emphatically not true for the kinds of sophisticated, transnational corruption networks that rely on skilled professional enablers and intermediaries to function. Yet the analogy with cancer suggests that corruption is something that just happens, an ever-present risk to which we are may unfortunately fall victim despite our best efforts.

For sure, corruption kills in all kinds of ways, and more generally has a hugely negative impact on the quality of life for millions across the world – in particular, in fragile and conflict-affected states, corruption is routinely associated with a host of ills, including widespread violence and killings. But the FCAS picture is a complex one: corruption in such settings is often as much a symptom as a cause of broader failings in governance, and can even serve as a source of limited stability. And if we return to the idea of the nation-state as the body politic, it is hard to think of any that has actually died from corruption. Indeed, we don’t comment in concerned tones: ‘did you hear the terrible news about Canada: it’s been diagnosed with corruption’.

Focus on treating the patient, not curing the disease

The third issue is that the use of cancer as an analogy for corruption inevitably suggests that we should be seeking a ‘cure’ – often explicitly so, as in the title of Robert I Rotberg’s latest volume, that describes corruption as ‘an insidious cancer of a national body politic’. In practice, many of the historically suggested ‘cures’ have been quite crude, prescribing ‘one-size-fits-all’ institutional reforms to strengthen the ‘good governance’ immune system – a sort of political equivalent to a course of radio- or chemotherapy no matter what type of corruption we are seeking to address.

We are now developing a more sophisticated understanding of corruption, but there is still an overwhelming tendency to see it as a pathology that is susceptible to treatment. Such an approach runs the risk not only of political naivety, but also of continuing to target such treatments at the level of the nation-state (as in the UNODC’s recent guide on the development and implementation of national anti-corruption strategies). Ironically enough, recent advances in cancer treatment have started to look at the use of DNA sequencing to develop personalised therapies targeted at the individual level – precisely the kind of highly specific and tailored focus often dismissed as impractical or unrealistic by those working on corruption.

At root, my real concern is that comparing corruption to cancer serves as a lazy analogy that reflects a broader series of generic, and frankly unhelpful, assumptions. After more than twenty years writing and researching on the topic of corruption, I have become ever more convinced that we need to change the terms of the conversation and move beyond some of the standard clichés that characterise the field. Through the British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme, we are trying to challenge colleagues to move away from sweeping generalizations about corruption acting as some kind of dependent or independent variable. Instead, we are encouraging researchers and practitioners alike to focus on the complexity and contradictions of the many manifestations of corruption. That means embracing the need to reconsider fundamental issues, such as the role of agency, the need to question our units of analysis and to the need to adapt reform initiatives to specific contexts, as well as focusing in much more detail on different sectors and settings.


About this article

Blog image: A dividing lung cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from: The National Cancer Institute.


About the Author

Paul M Heywood, PhD, FRSA, FAcSS. Professor Paul Heywood holds the Sir Francis Hill Chair of European Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK. Prior to taking up his Chair in 1995, he taught at the University of Glasgow and Queen Mary College, London. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, and did his doctorate at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on political corruption, institutional design and state capacity, and he is author, co-author or editor of eighteen books and more than eighty journal articles and book chapters. Recent funded research includes an ESRC/Hong Kong project on Integrity Management in the UK, HK and China; an EU FP7 project, ANTICORRP, on anti-corruption policies; and TACOD, an EU project on tackling corruption through open data. Professor Heywood is currently leader of a £3.6m British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence programme (2015-18), designed to identify new initiatives that can help developing countries tackle the scourge of corruption and the negative impact it has on millions of people’s lives. He is a Trustee of Transparency International-UK, where he chairs the Advocacy and Research Committee. Professor Heywood is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (2002), a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (2012), and a Fellow of Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (2013).


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