What is corruption?

Posted on: May 27, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Filipino Aid Workers

“One man’s corruption is another man’s wealth redistribution system. I find it hard to judge others on this.”

What is corruption?

This is pretty much low hanging fruit, I know, and way past due.

Impacting how the aid sector responds to corruption
My simple thesis in this post is that as the entire humanitarian sector deals with corruption of various kinds, the Trump administration, a perfect example of what some might call nepotism, is providing a model -justification?- for other leaders around the world thus making it ever more difficult for aid workers at all levels to confront these behaviors.

The negative, unintended consequence of this US example is that it gives great support to arguments -at all levels, from the village to the Presidency-  that hiring family and friends despite lack of qualifications is acceptable. This NY Times story puts Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the middle of the Russia investigation, and provides an example of how nepotism can play out.

Why OK there and not here?
How does a country director anywhere in the world deal with the very simple and compelling question, “if is is OK in the US why isn’t it OK here?” Laws in the US regarding the legality of this apparent favoritism and nepotism in the current US administration are not clear, at least to some, but at the very least the past 6 months in the US seen behaviors modeled at the highest levels that lie in direct opposition to how, for example, the global north would have governments in the global south to function.

In the survey the J (Evil Genius) and I completed in 2014 we asked about corruption and many aid workers had some very astute observations. Here’s one:

This respondent, a thirty-something female, further critiques the development sector and waxes poetic about the nature of the human condition, imperialism and the fine semantic distinctions that arise when talking about corruption:

“In the organisation, it is bloated with money and many people simply gorge at the trough of development aid. I am thankfully removed from this in my field, I have little reason to interact with others in my organisation. I do see the old boys network everywhere, the British upper middle classes in particular seem to have taken over other organisations, such as parts of the UN for example. Corruption is endemic to the human condition however. Regarding the region (mostly Africa) – there is a fine line between helping ones friends and families and corruption, in some cultural contexts this line is not where we expect. It is imperialism to impose our values on others like this when we have so much ‘acceptable’ corruption in our own private and public sector. We should get our own house in order (for me, the UK) before we judge others.” [emphasis added]

Positive direction
This issue is complicated at best.  Perhaps what we need are policies -both internationally and in the US- which articulate specific qualification rubrics for making appointments of influence by Presidents and other leaders.  These rubrics would not necessarily disqualify friends and family, but would move in a direction where they would have to at least meet basic qualifications.  Simply having them go through any transparent vetting process at all would serve a very positive function.  Indeed, we need to ‘get our own house in order’ so as to better model for others.

Going one step further, perhaps there should be basic numeracy and literacy tests for leaders in general, but I digress.

Back to our regular programming soon.  In the meantime, contact me with comment or feedback.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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