How to talk about Corruption when it’s everywhere, but invisible?

October 28, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Just got back from 10 days in Goma in DR Congo. No, this post won’t be about Ebola (which mercifully hasn’t taken hold in the city) or conflict (ditto). I was there to interview dozens of officials and NGOs about public services, especially water.

And the topic of this post is the difficulty of talking about an omnipresent, but highly elusive issue: corruption. Ask any Congolese, (or consult the political economy analyses) and they’ll all agree that everyone is on the take.

But how do you bring that up when you’re chatting to an official in offices ranging from smart air-conditioned suites to tin-roofed plank huts, and all the conversation is being conducted in the formal world of laws, procedures and contracts? It’s a bit like an iceberg, where you can only see the visible bit, not the vast chunk of ice below the surface.

DR Congo
Right hand side, by the lake….

I tried 3 different strategies, none with any great success:

1. Indirect: don’t use the ‘C’ word, talk about ‘informal payments’ with a knowing look. No-one seemed keen to go there

2. Ask the interviewee whether other people are corrupt, which is a green light for any number of unsubstantiated (and untestable) accusations against their enemies in the bureaucracy (‘everyone knows….’)

3. Find someone senior to vouch for you and say, even though you’re a mzungu (whitey), they should ‘give him the Pakistani version’ (as my colleague Tom Kirk once heard).

But as the days wore on, I started to question the way I was even thinking about all this.

Firstly, I realized that I’ve been living in a rather crass binary: sitting across the table from a state employee, I’m thinking ‘are they on the take, or do they want to serve the public?’ But in many cases I started to think the answer is ‘probably both’. Why can’t you want to provide public services but also feather your own nest? Isn’t that in some ways the same as asking for a pay rise for a job that you like doing?

Secondly, ‘corruption’ began to sound like a word imposed from outside – it didn’t seem to describe the way Congolese talk about ‘informal payments’. Sure, there is grand corruption – the former dictator Mobutu is quoted as saying ‘we don’t steal, we displace to unknown destinations’. But in more day-to-day interactions what an outsider would call corruption blurs into the general transactions of what we started to call ‘respect and reciprocity’, which are such a feature of Congolese society (turbocharged by the arrival of mobile phones – the level of constant networking is stunning).

Examples: paying a policeman to do their job; giving money to a public official for recommending you for a post; a civil servant using their position to help out people in her family/community.

Corruption is deadly. Stop it.
That simple?

And just to give you a sense of the complexity of all this, over a beer we asked local LSE researchers to come up with some of the words used to describe what outsiders call ‘corruption’. Here’s what they put together in 20 minutes, but I suspect it’s only the, erm, tip of the iceberg. The list starts with the small stuff, and then gets to the larger scale, and has lots of overlap between the different categories. French originals in italics.

  • Facilitation’: a commission in return for brokering a financial transaction (eg a contract)
  • Motivation’: incentive to someone to do their job, determined by what the person asking for the ‘favour’ can afford
  • Tercasserie’, literally ‘small annoyances’: the day to day hassle of paying people off
  • Thank yous (remerciaments): a gift after the service has been completed
  • Water (maji in Swahili): cops asking for a little something in exchange for letting you go after they’ve stopped you in the street
  • Beans for the kids (haricots des enfants): see ‘water’
  • Expenses (frais de mission): price paid for an official visit
  • Bread of the way (pain de la route): The way a Big Man sprinkles money and gifts during his visits, which of course he has to recoup through other channels, like…..
  • Collection (colacion/cotizacion): You have to fork out $ for the honour of a visit by the Big Man – minister, director, whatever
  • The boss’ slice (la partie du chef): in Swahili, the euphemism is ‘where is the part of me that is missing?’
  • Return operation (operation retour): If the senior official or politician brings in the project, what comes back to them? Easy to add this in to the costs of the project through false invoicing.

What’s the best thing to read on all this? And has anyone done any good research on the extent to which corruption is gendered, for men and women in the same positions?

Previous musings on the state of the Anti-Corruption movement here

October 28, 2019
Duncan Green