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Of our culture, corruption and economy at risk

By XN Iraki | November 29th 2015

The first time I took American fast food was at Wendy’s in Mississippi. A classmate took me there. When it came to paying the bills, I expected him to pay for both of us. He paid his, I paid for mine. Newly arrived in USA, I found that very mean. But with time I got used to it and realised it was part of the American culture.

While we are quick to copy American political system with senators, governors and chiefs of staff, we are unlikely to copy their culture which I consider more important than their political system. Unfortunately, you can watch American movies or TV but you will never understand the “soul”of a nation and what makes it great until you live there and understand its culture.

As we lament over the corruption in Kenya, which Pope and President Obama noted, we often ignore the role of our cultures which are very receptive to corruption, just as we are very receptive to religion. Ever noted that taking Holy Communion in church resembles our traditional oaths?

If you buy someone tea, or anything else, you are considered a good person and get praised. We are brought up believing that helping someone is honourable. So later in life if we can steal from public coffers, to help relatives or fellow ethnic group members, that is not seen as corruption, but generosity and a sign of goodness. In USA and other countries, kids grow up knowing that you do not take favours. In Kenya we learn very early how to get favours, including from our parents, who give us gifts to work hard in school or behave well.

That is why confronting corruption has proved very difficult, it rhymes with our cultures. In most of our traditional societies, giving gifts to our leaders was expected. That culture has got into our modern society. The difference now is that money is exchanged. The use of money and its “invisibility” unlike a goat or a cow makes corruption worse.

Corruption thrives because we are never taught the value of hard work; we learn to hate work early. In primary school, kids are given work like cleaning classes as a punishment. In our time, we uprooted tree stumps. Americans and Japanese seem to imbibe the value of hard work early. In Kenya, we even employ people called supervisors to watch other people work. So we long to be supervisors to “stop working”.

Indirectly, we devalue work by having some people paid much more than others. Incidentally, those who work hardest are paid the lowest. While we can argue that managers, CEO etc are paid more than juniors because of experience and more education, the difference is often not accounted by these factors.

Such big differences breed bitterness and once the juniors get a chance to be corrupt, they see nothing wrong with “catching up”. The initiative to evaluate public sector jobs so that people are paid commensurate with their qualifications and efforts is welcome. Let us be blunt, corruption is mostly perpetuated by well (and pseudo) educated people. Who else can know the intricacies of land or money transfers? Does anyone get surprised that Nigeria is famous, for corruption yet it leads in terms of highly educated people? We are where Nigeria was may be 20 years ago. We have a critical mass of educated Kenyans who believe making money as easily and as quickly as possible is heroism. Business schools are not innocent, we preach the same gospel.

Are the current initiatives by president Uhuru likely to work?
Yes if implemented. The problem is that corruption resembles Aids virus, it keeps mutating. Suppose am banned from doing business with the government but can registered another firm, may be even offshore?

Access to information and transparency are key planks in the fight against corruption. If the new firm’s directors are publicized, it becomes easier to name and shame. South Korea, in the fight against corruption banned the use of pseudo names in bank accountants.

If someone grabs a school field and his details are published, instead of his company, people will think twice before grabbing public land. Corruption thrives where information is scarce. The credit referencing bureau allows information on our credit worthiness to be shared. Government agencies should share information among themselves and with the public.

The president also suggested that ethics should be taught in schools. It used to be taught as social education and ethic (SEE) and at one time, there was leakage in SEE exam! Is lack of ethics education the root cause of corruption? I thought parents and churches teach us ethics every day and corruption has always been a sin.

Are there any penalties for unethical behaviour including corruption? Are there any rewards for ethical behaviour? Penalties include jail terms but does our justice and police system have what it takes to punish the corrupt? Some argues that corruption is doing well because the perpetrators know they can get away with it.

The legal approach to fighting corruption is the easiest but not the only one. Are we looking at our cultures? Are we looking at the economic front? What incentives do we give those who are upright? If by being straight I will retire to a life of misery while the corrupt will enjoy, chances are that I will be tempted to become corrupt too. Can we ensure that social security at old age is guaranteed, so that there will be no need to hedge against old age misery through corruption?

How safe are whistle blowers? I suspect most corrupt people just like most thieves and gangsters are well known but exposing them is too risky.
There is no doubt that corruption is threat to national security, not just because of terrorism but more. What happens after we have grabbed whatever can be grabbed? We shall create a critical mass of annoyed people and interclass violence is a possibility. Will grabbers start fighting each after there is no more to grab?

But the biggest threat paused by corruption is that it kills the souls of the nation; motivation, thinking beyond self, creativity and innovation. Does it worry us that while Japanese had 271,731 patent applications in 2013, Kenya had 127, South Korea had 159,978, and USA had 287,831? When meritocracy is sacrificed, we all lose.

Corruption is not just an economic, legal or religious issue. It has philosophical connotations too; Pope Francis argued, “Corruption takes away our joy, our peace: corrupt people don’t live in peace. Corruption is something that eats inside, like sugar. Sweet, we like it, it’s easy. And then we end up badly” Many corrupt people only realize this simple fact too late in life.
Sadly, corruption disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged, who the corrupt think are “stupid.”

Corruption rarely kills a nation with a bang; it is likely to do so in whimpers, to borrow from poet T.S Elliot.

Finally, war on corruption will be won if we all join hands; from parents who must teach their kids the value of hard work to judiciary and police who must ensure the law breakers are punished according to the law made by our MPs.

Corruption thrives because we have weak institutions that are easily captured by individuals, their myopia and fears. Surprisingly most corrupt people are cowards who lived in the shadow of fear..

—The writer is Senior Lecturer, University of Nairobi

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