Two bangamary and a trout: A case of petty corruption?

Writing an article on corruption has become an easy undertaking. One merely has to read the daily newspapers in Guyana to find examples. If one types the word “corruption” on any internet search engine it is easy to find research papers, case studies, statistics, indices, quotations, ideas and opinions to adequately craft an essay or to take a position.

Numerous definitions of corruption exist with the most common being “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” which is the definition that Transparency Guyana uses. The usual contenders of corruption are public and private officials. These are persons who hold positions of trust, and who the citizens must hold to account.

Many of us know about “petty” or “grand” corruption. One can feel, see, smell and in some special cases taste the cost of power and its turbid abuse. Corruption is also a creature of mythical proportions that defies commonsense. It can be friendly and helpful to the easily beguiled. It opens doors beyond bureaucracy and red tape making life less intense. It offers bounty large and small to the common person and lest we forget, the corrupt public official.

There is the side of corruption that is familiar: that of friendly gestures, gifts and small pleasures.  “Who does it hurt”? some may ask. Some may even argue, as has been done, that the giving of gifts should not be frowned upon. After all, the burdened civil servant or public official receives so little by way of wages. Should he or she not seek a little something to assuage the hardships of life in service?

Let us take the case of our congenial host: a high-ranking public official. His entitlement, as he sees it, by way of persuasion, is to obtain some fish, some prawns and some squid.  He wants to share his bounty with his friends who do not have to know what he did. He can even arrange to have it “donated” towards the wedding menu of a friend who is planning to get married. How does it work, this gentle twisting of the arm?  It is simple really. Just call on the people with the largest fish farm.  They know that a refusal will not be taken lightly.

Some might argue that there is no harm in asking and receiving favours.  After all, we are all friends, neighbours, brothers and sisters.  Is it not inevitable in a society as small as ours is?

In 2008, the UNDP released a report titled “Tackling corruption, transforming lives” which focused on assessing the impact of “petty” corruption in Asia. The authors argued that while anti-corruption efforts too often focus on exposing the “big fish”, it is “small fry” corruption that is funnelled into the pockets of corrupt officials. This threatens to hamper the Region’s goal of achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Anuradha Rajivan, head of the UNDP Regional Human Development Report Unit, stated that “hauling the rich and powerful before the courts may grab the headlines, but the poor will benefit more from efforts to eliminate the corruption that plagues their everyday lives.  Petty corruption is a misnomer. Dollar amounts may be relatively small but the demands are incessant, the number of people affected is enormous and the share of poor people’s income diverted to corruption is high.” Petty corruption manifests itself in a myriad of ways.  The question is how can it be combated?

Novel solutions have been offered to combat the problem.  In Nepal, the government made airport workers wear pants without pockets to prevent the workers from seeking bribes from travellers, while in Kazakhstan, the government made civil servants wear badges with the words “I am against corruption” in the hope that they would think twice about taking bribes.  In Belarus, public officials are taken on prison tours to see those who have been jailed for corrupt practices.  China takes a harder line.  Corrupt officials are executed.

None of this addresses the receiving of solicited gifts like that of our ubiquitous public official mentioned above.  What we have there is a case of prebendalism.  The term, first coined by Richard Joseph in 1996, describes the situation where people believe that “state offices are regarded as prebends (benefits) that can be appropriated by officeholders, who use them to generate material benefits for themselves and their constituents and kin groups…”

Combating this type of corruption is far more difficult than one can imagine.  It is rooted in culture and the structure of society. It is reflective of socio-cultural norms of various social classes and ethnic groups.  It is customary and expected in most societies for people to help friends and family members. Yet, the same behaviour is improper and, indeed, unlawful when it takes place within a rational-legal civil service (Court 2000).

This poem “Corruption” by Vinny Knowles sums up well the impermeable cycle that is graft and gain.

I can help you

If you help me

I can free you

If you pay me

I can waste your time

Because I have the power

You can pay me off

Or you can sit for hours

Because I have the power

It is not about right or wrong

They did it to me, I do it to you

It will be your turn, you won’t wait long.

Because corruption breeds corruption

You learn from me and then do the same

So, I take my turn as long as I can

Until it is your turn to play the game.

Everyone has a role to play in combating corruption. Solutions require creativity and the courage to implement.  Transparency Guyana welcomes suggestions on combating the insidious petty and grand corruption. Let us work together to find ways to eradicate corruption in Guyana.

Contact Transparency Institute Guyana if you are interested in joining the fight against corruption. Email us at trans.inst@yahoo if you wish to volunteer and visit our Facebook Page: Transparency Institute Guyana to support and share our work.

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