05/01/2007 11:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Let Anti-Corruption Go Down With Wolfowitz

Paul Wolfowitz's long, bitter swan song at the World Bank is now accompanied by supportive sounds from unexpected quarters. In Tuesday's NYT, Nuhu Ribadu, Chairman of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission wrote an impassioned defense of the embattled Bank President. He praised the very crusade against corruption in developing countries that seems to have turned much of the Bank's staff against Mr. Wolfowitz. While Wolfowitz may need to leave the Bank, the body's Board of Directors ought to ensure that the organization's commitment to fight corruption not disappear along with him.

By taking on the issue of corruption, Wolfowitz broke from longstanding Bank practice to avoid wading into "politics" in the countries it helped. But in pressing countries to restructure their budgets and economies, the Bank inevitably bumped up against negligent and fraudulent practices that prevented resources from being maximized for public benefit. By remaining silent, the lender was tacitly allowing such unsavory practices to continue. Wolfowitz's predecessor, James Wolfensohn, saw the problem and railed against the "cancer of corruption" in 1996 and set up a unit to battle graft. But he stopped short of withholding Bank aid on the basis of corruption.

Wolfowitz took matters a step further. He held up aid to India for a health program that was reportedly being siphoned off for politicians benefit, and froze lending to Chad in retaliation for that country's failure to meet commitments to channel oil proceeds to the poor. Similar measures were taken to punish corruption in Kenya, Bangladesh, Argentina and elsewhere.

Bank employees and others have complained that in withholding aid, Wolfowitz has punished innocent people who are themselves victims of the very corruption he decries. This is true: as long as some aid was making it past the pilferers, end recipients would be worse off if Bank funds are turned off entirely. But, as Ribadu points out, $300 billion in foreign aid to Africa over the last two decades has failed to stanch rampant malaria and AIDS, nor help the 40 million African children who are not in school. While corruption is not solely to blame, Ribadu argues that corruption "kills far more effectively than AIDS, malaria or war."

Furthermore, while some focus on the near-term impact of anti-corruption efforts on the poorest, others have objected to Wolfowitz's approach on separate grounds. These have included affected governments not accustomed to having their domestic practices scrutinized, as well as Bank staff who had trouble getting used to the new rules.

The UN has cited corruption as a human rights issue, pointing out in a recent report that it harms the poor disproportionately due to their inability to pay bribes and access development resources. In Nigeria, for example, the misuse of oil funds has pulled money away from desperately needed health and education services.

Assuming Wolfowitz goes, there may be a strong temptation for his successor to wipe the slate clean and define a new agenda that places less emphasis on the hot-button issue of corruption. That leader will need to win the support of Bank staff and governments, some of whom may have been more irked by Wolfowitz's crackdown on corruption that by his treatment of his girlfriend.

But Wolfowitz's failure to embody personally the unimpeachable standards demanded of a high-profile corruption fighter ought not discredit the cause. Some of Wolfowitz's tactics may warrant scrutiny and overhaul. But his commitment to ensuring that the Bank not prop up and propagate corrupt bureaucracies is a legacy that deserves to outlive its champion.