Monday, May 31, 2010

Calling Out
Quiet Corruption
(or Cultural Imperialism?)

"In Uganda, teachers in public primary schools are absent 27 percent of the time. In Chad, less than one percent of the non-wage recurrent expenditures reaches primary health clinics.  In West Africa, about half the fertilizer is diluted before it reaches the farmer. " - Shanta Devrajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa

The World Bank this year has focused their African Development Indicators on a concept called 'Quiet Corruption'.

According to the WB this form of corruption, the likes of which Dr. Devrajan discusses on his blog, quitely stifles the chances for growth and prosperity among the poorest people in the world. This type of corruption, they say, is very different from the headline-grabbing corruption scandals that indict morally depraved people for heinous crimes involving some transfer of wealth. Instead of overtly breaking the law for personal monetary gain, perpetrators of quiet corruption may simply not show up for work <=. This notion is broad enough to include all actions that deviate from what is normally expected, such as putting in a lower level of effort than expected, or bending the rules for some people and not for others. 

If we can define this term so broadly it could include what Nicholas Kris(jerk)off wrote in the NYT about the choices that poor people make. Poor people put in less effort to provide for their children than he expects. (Ok, perhaps that is stretching the term, but I just had to mention that terrible article. I won't quote it or deal directly with the problems with it - too annoyed - so you'll have to click on the links.)  

While we cannot deny the facts he quotes, what we can do is find the reasons why quiet corruption is so rampant and why poor fathers blow all their cash on beer (as he should have instead of perpetuating ignorance). If there is a ribbon that ties these concepts together it is the notion of 'role models'. Who are the role models in society? The richest, most powerful and most famous people in many developing countries are the corrupt political elite. They are also, unfortunately, the most emulated. If the people at the top made it there by being corrupt, and they are now above the law, wouldn't that pervert most peoples incentives for honest work? If it appeared that the only way to get ahead would be to cheat, lie and steal then I might also drown my conscience in beer. I might also not show up for work as often. 

But Dr. Devrajan is right: incentives need to change. Work could be more piecemeal, police and regulatory bodies should be better funded, and perhaps most important, the voices of the informed critics must be heard. 

But wait, in light of my contempt for Mr. Kristof, aren't we being a little bit one sided on this issue? I mean, life just doesn't work the same way in all places and we can't expect it to. Here in the UAE, as my neighbour once told me, "It's not a task based life, it's a person based life." Things almost always work differently in person than they do on paper. Some things In the UAE are expected to take more time then they would in the West, and meetings are a good token. Should I demand that this meeting - that I should be in right now - start on time? Should it think of this as corruption that we are expected to be in a meeting, getting paid as if we are, but really we are chinwagging the hours away (or in my case writing blog posts) ? No, that would be rude, people are just getting to know each other before the meeting starts, and that is part of this culture.

So when is it 'quiet corruption' and when is it just an acceptable part of culture? Perhaps the context of rampant poverty makes a difference? 

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