I remember my first encounter with bribery. It took me a little while to register that that’s what was actually happening—a $25 payout for a set of travel papers that would have been mine for a lot less if I had been willing to wait for days for someone—somewhere—to process the request. But by that time, I would have long-missed the flight to my destination. I had to get there and the bureaucrats in charge of the papers probably knew it.
So I forked over the money, as did a friend with whom I was travelling. Our handlers knew the drill well. Before we could even begin to worry about this unexpected outlay, one of them handed us a piece of paper that said “justification for expenses without receipt.” It was stamped with a government seal and the amount recorded at the bottom.
All of this came flooding back to me as I read Celia Dugger’s recent story in The New York Times about the corruption that plagues parts of Africa. Citing the estimate of one former World Bank Institute expert, the story said “there are tens of billions of dollars of corrupt transactions each year in sub-Saharan Africa.” And globally, bribery payments hit $1 trillion a year, the story continued.
When you’re talking about billions or trillions, twenty-five bucks is nothing. But start adding up those small-time hits—or “justification for expenses without receipts” if you prefer that euphemism—and pretty soon you’re making big-time money. Not as big, perhaps, as the $15 million that Dugger reported had been stuffed—in $100 bills—into bulging sacks for a pay-off in Nigeria, but certainly motivated by the same culture of corruption.
But sub-Saharan Africa is far from the only place on the planet afflicted with this problem. The headlines right here in Massachusetts have been loaded lately with news about corruption charges against our former house speaker. The Boston Globe says he’s been accused of taking $57,000 from a software company while steering multi-million dollar state contracts its way.
Luckily, we still get to read about those alleged abuses. We’ve got a tradition of supporting a free press and encouraging an active citizenry that can demand transparency from elected officials—and hold them accountable when they cheat us.
Those traditions—if they can take root and grow strong– may be the best bulwark against the corruption that Dugger tallied. And it’s those traditions—solid local institutions, an engaged civil society—that Oxfam is working to support in countries around the world.
When citizens are involved, and empowered, government officials can’t so easily enrich themselves with ill-gotten gains. Our work in West Africa is a case in point. Together with local groups, we’ve been trying to change the way mining is carried out in the region. If citizens can exercise their rights to know about mining projects, if they can get access to the information they need, they can fight corruption and force companies and their governments to be honest about where all the revenue is going.