I’ve been reading about Nigeria in this class “Government in Contemporary Africa” (my favorite class, I must say, for this semester) and the similarities between Nigeria and South Korea, in terms of corruption, are quite striking. I know that many stuck-up Koreans will be offended by having their ‘highly developed’ country, one of the Asian Tigers for god’s sake, compared to a ‘developing’ country in Africa they know nothing about, but it is what it is.
At the core of both societies lies an ailment that has spread so extensively and that has such deep roots in history and society that it has mutated to a social tradition. I don’t know what is the worst part in this social disorder; that its manifestations are never exactly clear cut malign or benign, that its causes are too deeply entrenched in society to isolate them for further examination, that its symptoms are often indistinguishable, or that its cures are yet to be found. I guess even worse is that there is no clear definition of what ‘corruption’ really is. I don’t mean a ‘dictionary definition’, since I’m pretty sure it is a word that is in the dictionary, but its definition when taken into the context of our daily lives. The only clear thing is that it is there, it exists, and it often negatively affects society, politics and economics, and we are still at a loss when it comes to curing it.
Indeed, where do we set the limits to what IS corruption and what isn’t? Is it corruption to have university professors ‘recommend’ some students whose integrity and sincerity they are aware of, to certain research posts to help them in their careers? Is it corruption to pay ‘a little something’ to police officers who arrest your car on the streets instead of arguing with them for half an hour? Is it corruption when a politician accepts money from his/her ‘supporters’ when every other politician is doing the same thing, and that’s the only way to finance your political agenda? Is it corruption when you put in a good word for a friend or a family member because you believe, in your heart, he/she is the right person for the position, although there was, officially, a public announcement recruiting for the post?
Both in Mauritania and Korea, I have been an unconscious and ‘innocent’ witness and beneficiary of corruption, I must admit. Whenever our phone line wouldn’t work in Nouadhibou, which was quite often, mom would go to the ‘person she knew’ at the post office and ‘fix it’. We would get stopped by police officers in the middle of the street when we weren’t going any faster than the normal speed limit, and instead of haggling for half an hour, we would resort to the quickest and most obvious solution, bribing the police officer, who would smile and let us go as if it were the most normal thing to do. In Korea, graduating from the officially number one university of the country, and speaking a little English and a little French on top of a little Korean, along with knowing the right people, will get you farther ahead than some other people.
And every time I was playing in the wide and invisible pool that is corruption and nepotism, I would have my sturdy reason. After all, it wasn’t as if we were paying millions to get out of an annoying traffic ticket, it was ‘just a little present’. It wasn’t as if I were offered a top position somewhere, or that I didn’t deserve it, I just had the good luck not to go through some bothersome red tape. And above all, it wasn’t as if I were the only one taking the easier path. Everyone else was, and would, if they had the chance to.
Sure, these excuses work, or seem to work rather harmlessly on a personal and individual level. But that’s what politicians, corporate, and other horrible corrupt people must think too, right? Why should a small bribe matter when I’ll be using it for the ‘greater good’ and life would be so much easier afterwards? So where do you draw the line between indulging your personal greed and contributing to a social wrong?
I guess what we fail to realize, in our eager desire to get ahead and in our endless search for comfort, is that for every chance we take on innocently, there is someone else out there who missed out on that chance without even realizing he/she had it in the first place. When we ‘give presents’, we force those who don’t have the means to ‘give presents’ to do the same. When we think we are helping out a friend, we deprive someone else with similar abilities of a chance he/she might have eagerly waited for, but couldn’t get it just because he/she didn’t know the ‘right people’. The small step we naively take translates into a thousand ripples into the big realm of corruption and therefore perpetuates inequality. The line between what is corruption and what is not becomes blurred and the blurrier it gets, the harder it is for us to combat corruption, or even to perceive it as something we should fight against.