Sunday, August 18, 2013

cultures of corruption and change

The rickety passenger van is more than full.  We number 21 adults, 3 small children, a few sacks of corn, a cooler full of fish, and a few live chickens.  The windows are cracked open to keep the air moving.  Up ahead a traffic cop motions for the van to pull over and the cramped crowd lets out a collective sigh.  As we slow to a stop, the driver gets one of the people near him to surrender his fare.   

With the money squashed in his hand the driver greets the traffic cop who has already begun the litany of various offenses that have been committed and the fines this officer plans to apply.  Begging forgiveness, the driver gives the officer a "special" handshake.  And now that the transaction is complete, the bus is free again to amble down the road.

Since the recent sale of our vehicle, I've been using public transportation to get around outside of our town.  In the past three days, I've ridden in eight different vehicles, six 'chapas' (minivans) and two flatbed trucks, to get to and from a church conference and to make a trip to Pemba.   That is collectively more public transportation than in all my time in this country and it has been a good reminder of what our friends here experience all the time. 

Our status as foreigners reduces some of the pressures of corruption.  Traffic cops rarely push me for a 'gift' in order to continue on my journey, but out of the 5 or 6 times that the vehicle I was traveling in was stopped, only once was I sure that money had not changed hands.

Symptoms of corruption leak into every area of life.  School teachers will keep students who have completed all their assignments from passing a class unless they are given monetary or sexual favors.  Nurses have been known to delay treatment or withhold medicine.  Documents waiting certain stamps may be 'lost' and 'surprisingly difficult to find' without a financial incentive.

Now, I am not saying that everyone is corrupt.  I know people of high character in different levels of public service.  The government has made some steps towards improvement - they provide phone lines where you can denounce civil servants who ask for bribes.  But corruption is common enough, that our Mozambican friends expect it as a part of life.  I've also been put in situations so bathed in corruption, that there hasn't been any good way out.  It seeps into every crevice and affects daily decisions.   Corruption, in my mind, has to be one of the most destructive forces on a society.  It is a disease that is difficult to eradicate once it has infected a culture.    

A recent article in the Guardian looks at the competing financial realities of economic growth and corruption in our capital city of Maputo.  The author notes the contradictions of the way Mozambique's economy is booming with the discovery of oil and other national resources, alongside the fact that the 2013 Human Development Index ranks Mozambique as number 185 out of 187 countries.  That scale is "a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development - a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living."  Just for the sake of comparison, Haiti ranks 161.  In case you're curious, life expectancy in Mozambique is 50.7 years, Haiti is 62.4, and in the U.S. is 78.7.

So, while the country has some hopeful indicators of economic growth, many people don't expect to benefit from it any time soon and are still subject to the financial pinch of low level, local corruption.        

I've been thinking about corruption lately and why some societies seem to be effected by it more than others.  David Brooks' terrific book The Social Animal pointed me to a fascinating study.

Until 2002 diplomats in New York City could avoid parking fines.  Fisman and Miguel analyzed the data from 1700 consular personal and their families to see who took advantage of their immunity and who didn't.  They found that diplomats from countries that ranked high on the Transparency International corruption index piled up huge numbers of unpaid tickets, whereas diplomats from countries that ranked low on the index barely got any at all.  Between 1997 and 2002, diplomats from Kuwait picked up 246 parking violations per diplomat.  Diplomats from Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Syria also had incredible numbers of violations.  Meanwhile diplomats from Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway and Canada had no violations at all.  Even thousands of miles away from home, diplomats still carried their domestic cultural norms inside their heads.  The results were not influenced by salary, age, or any other of the measured controls. (p. 154)

In that study, Mozambique's diplomats were ranked number 6.  During that same time frame, they averaged 112 parking violations per diplomat.    For a copy of "Corruption, Norms, and Legal Enforcement: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets" click here.

We may wish for an easy solution to corruption, but when a cultural characteristic like this is so pervasive, one that even its best educated members carry with them halfway around the world, there will be no quick fixes.

So, how should the people of God respond?  What hope can we have for real change?

Christians are called to model a different ethic.  As representatives of God's kingdom, their character should be marked by integrity and a desire to effectively live up to that title of public servants.  The church is still young especially up here in the northern part of the country and my hope is that our team's presence here can add even just a little more leverage to those within the system pushing the culture towards a healthier and holier way of functioning.

It will be slow.

It's not much in the face of such an imposing opponent.

But, maybe, just maybe, that salt, light and leaven will help do the trick.

May God bless Mozambique and give all of its people a vision of a society, a culture, free from corruption.

Grace and Peace,


(Special thanks to Kara Tobey for the picture of the chapa)

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