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What anti-graft agencies can learn from golfers

By X N Iraki | September 15th 2020

Nelson Simwa comes from a bunker during the Barclays Kenya Open Golf Pro-Am championship at Muthaiga Golf club in 2018 (Photo sportpicha.com)

Beyond the English language, Britons bequeathed us sports.

They gave us cricket, football, polo and golf. The last two seem popular with the upper class.

Cost is a factor; the price of a golf kit can get you a cow or two. For polo, you also need a horse, some of which cost more than a car. 

Like lions marking their territory, the British settlers marked their territory with golf courses (and maybe some churches).

It’s a clear testimony they came from the upper class. Their titles like generals, majors and colonels support that. Less known is that their alma maters were  Oxbridge or Eton. 

Though we have in the last two decades become Americanised politically and culturally, we are still very much British; we are very conscious of social classes.

We have not dismantled the class system; we even entrench it with new status symbols, including names. Jayden and Liam are now more common than John and Rose. 

Enough with the digression. Why should anti-corruption agencies learn from golf associated with the rich and affluent?

Truth be told, you can’t miss a few hustlers in golf courses disguised as affluent.  

The game is played on natural grass with clubs that are numbered from 1 to 9.  The clubs have other names like woods and wedges (not potatoes) or those used to split logs.

The lower the number on the club, the farther it hits the ball. In a game of golf, whoever scores the lowest wins, not like in the exams. Remember reciprocal relationship in your high school maths? Or I am awaking ghosts? 

The hallmark of this game is honesty. You normally play in a team of four, but groups of three or two are allowed.

Two players exchange their scorecards to record what you score in each of the 18 holes.

The score on each hole is the number of times you hit the ball from the tee (where you start off) to the hole on the green.

Remember par 3, par 4 or 5?  They show the number of times you should hit the ball to the hole on regulation. If you can hit fewer times, the better.  

No one checks whether you have "doctored" your partner’s scores. You are expected to be honest, even when scoring for your spouse, friend or child. Even when the stakes are high.

It is very rare for golfers to cheat. If they do,  suspension or expulsion from the club could follow. To make matters worse, your name is circulated to other clubs. That stigmatisation and loss of honour keep discipline in the game.  

Our anti-corruption agencies use the threat of jail or asset seizure to prevent corruption.

Why not use the golfers’ approach where self-discipline carries the day? It’s cheaper and more effective.

Suppose we circulated the names of corrupt leaders and officers alongside the evidence against them in the media, their churches, employers, chamas, parents or business partners.

We could even put them on billboards for good measure. In America, they did that for men who refused to pay child support in Mississippi. It worked wonders.

The isolation during Covid-19 gave us a valuable lesson on how stigmatisation would be effective as a deterrent towards corruption, the lowest form of entrepreneurship. 

Suppose professional associations like Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya and Institute of Human Resource Managers, among others, did the same.

With time, the social cost of being ostracised by fellow professionals would reduce corruption.

Today, no one knows who are the corrupt professionals or who is on suspension. 

Unfortunately, some professional associations protect their own, probably so as not to lose affiliation fees. Yet suspended golfers would have paid their entry and yearly subscriptions.

Some will be quick to add that Kenyans are shameless and will not be bothered by a bad reputation.

That is quickly changing. We are more concerned about our own brand and image. It's paradoxical that we are very religious but shame or regret are very rare.

Traditionally, shame and punishment kept many on the straight and the narrow. We need to be forthright; corruption is stealing. There is no heroism in corruption. 

But my gut tells me we are unlikely to stigmatise the corrupt. Instead, we are more likely to secretly admire them. Yet a country that glorifies those who prefer shortcuts will grief in future. 

If stigmatisation has worked on golf courses, why not try it elsewhere? It seems some of the most complex problems have very parsimonious solutions. Over to anti-corruption agencies. 

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