Friday, February 03, 2006

Corruption, Part I

This is what I don’t get. It’s one thing to be a big politician in Nairobi stuffing public funds into your own pocket. Funds that might otherwise go towards building a rural water infrastructure or opening new universities or making secondary schools free or paving rural roads or rehabilitating matatu fleets to make them one notch above life-threatening or upgrading district hospitals so that they have basic supplies, equipment, drugs and tests. But a big politician doesn’t always see the people he’s hurting when he does this.

When you’re a little civil servant working in your own community, going around meeting self-help groups, churches, widows, youth, orphans and neighbors on a daily basis…but you’re corrupt—stealing money that has been earmarked for these people whom you know, people you live and work with, whose kids go to school with your kids, so you see how they’re suffering because you stole their money—I just don’t get it. How selfish and sociopathic do you have to be to do this and not feel enough remorse to stop doing it?

One’s cultural perspective is hard to break out of. A Kenyan could probably give a rational explanation for corruption – why people do it and why other people don’t do anything to stop it: It’s necessary for survival, it’s a sense of powerlessness to change the status quo, it’s easier to work with the system than to fight it.

Americans believe in the power to change things for the better. We’re really idealistic. Things that we accept as basic human rights – to treat others and to be treated with dignity and respect, for example – are privileges that many people here just assume they will never have. So it doesn’t make sense to us why someone would sit back and let wrongdoing happen. It doesn’t make sense to us why you would be corrupt, unless there were something deeply wrong with your moral and social character. We also don’t have a 50 percent poverty rate and 70 percent unemployment and drought and famine every year.

So yeah. I walk away from community groups feeling guilty that I can’t give each member $100 to start a small business so their kids can go to school past 8th grade, and there are people in these villages who don’t feel an ounce of guilt for being the cause of a neighbor’s suffering.

A funny sad story: There is a road that runs for 5 km connecting two towns near me. It is part dirt and part tarmack –there are portions where a tarmack starts, then half a kilometer later it ends and the road is dirt, then another half a kilometer later the tarmack starts again, then another half a kilometer it ends and the road is dirt. Et cetera. The parts where the tarmack is missing are where the funds for paving the road were stolen by corrupt officials. It should be part of some tourist attraction displaying the cultural heritage of Kenya. Visit a traditional Nandi village! Taste traditional maziwa lala (sour milk) aged in handmade gourds! See the long-standing tradition of corruption manifested in the local infrastructure!


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