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"Contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes. Sure, it's legal for the most part. Sure, everyone in Washington does it. Sure it's the way the system works. It's one of Washington's dirty little secrets - but it's bribery just the same...."
—former U.S.A. lobbyist Jack Abramoff (1)

How many cars does it take to review a syllabus? Typically Unicef is more discreet about the perks that it distributes to officials. In the agency's 2014 Annual Report for Zimbabwe, someone revealed more than usual.

Bribes — legal and otherwise

motorbike on the road in Africa

Motorbikes in Africa: Some bribes won't fit in an envelope.

The Minister for Education, Science, Vocational Training, and Early Education in Zambia effusively thanked Unicef for helping the country to solve its "biggest challenge in reaching out to our teachers and learners" by addressing a problem that had "demoralised teachers and learners."

What had Unicef done that made such a difference? They gave 78 motorbikes to the ministry, for "improved monitoring of education standards in the country, especially in rural areas."

No matter that over the centuries and around the world, other countries had found better and cheaper ways to "monitor" education.(2) No matter that even if all 78 motorbikes were actually used for the designated purpose and none went to the minister's friends or subordinates for personal use (are you going to check on that? Neither is Unicef, which values its friends in high places), and if it was effective, a highly dubious proposition, 78 motorbikes could cover only a fraction of the country, so what about the rest?

No matter that this was a decidedly temporary solution: If teachers would only show up because they thought somebody would drop by on a motorbike to check, what would happen when the motorbikes broke down, got stolen, or wore out? Was Unicef planning to donate new ones every few years?

And, of course, we don't know if it made a difference. UN agencies aren't big on the accountability thing.

But 78 people have motorbikes. That's 78 people eager to spread the word about how vital Unicef is to their country's development. And we can count on them to spread that word because one day, they'll need new motorbikes.(3)

* * *

The term "bribe" usually conjures up an image of an envelope or briefcase filled with cash. But that's risky. In the United States, businesses that want to shape the law make campaign contributions. In poor countries, INGOs that need a warm government welcome have their own methods:

• INGOs provide cellphones, iPads, iPhones, laptops, and vehicles of all sorts to government officials, "to help them do their jobs."

• INGOs rent space — office space or staff housing or event space — from government officials, or from the government itelf, and since there is rarely much accountability or transparency within the government, no one knows where this money goes.

• INGOs pay travel expenses and generous per-diems to government staff — who are already on the government payroll — to consult, to attend workshops, to accompany the INGO when it visits sites.

• INGOs typically enter a small region to undertake a project, which will last for 2 to 5 years. When that ends, there are lots of leftover items, most notably vehicles, but also furniture, computers, and perhaps also a house. These regularly end up with well-connected government officials.(4)

• INGOs willingly pay high fees for government services that would be free or cheap — except that the government knows the INGO is willing to pay. (5)

In each case, a government official gets something of value, from an organization hoping to influence government actions and decisions to do what's best for the organization, rather than what's best for the country. It's a legal bribe.

How to legally give an illegal bribe

Sometimes, the cash-filled envelope is truly best. But you don't want to be caught on videotape as you hand it over. What to do?

There's a safe, technically legal, practical solution. You get somebody else to do it. For big jobs, you hire a sub-contractor; for small ones, you hire someone known as a fixer or facilitator.

A local fixer not only provides deniability — "We told him not to do that! We won't use him again." (Your only job is to say it with indignation.) A fixer is also cheaper. A foreigner doesn't know how big a bribe should be, and will usually overpay. The fixer will not.(6)

With each bribe, the INGO strengthens government desire to keep the INGO in town, and it weakens the government link to its own citizens. Perhaps someone in the village has a better idea about how to get teachers to show up. (A mother who lives nearby and has a young child at home, and also a child in school, might be quite happy to look in.) But a villager isn't giving away motorbikes.

Notes and Sources

1. Abramoff spent 43 months in prison for corruption. This observation comes from his book Capitol Punishment and is quoted by Lawrence Lessig in One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic. Lessig, like many others, believes the influence of big money is destroying the American system, because of a dynamic that also takes place in the aid industry: "So long as congressmen spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money, they will be responsive to their funders." (back)

2. The Unicef press release didn't explain what "monitoring" meant, but most likely it consisted of checking to be sure that teachers showed up. This is a big issue in many poorer countries, but more motorbikes aren't the solution. If schools in these countries were providing an education that had value for the students, then community pressure would get the teachers to show up. But schools don't seem to be doing that. (See Poor education.) (back)

3. Unicef proudly announced this donation on their website, ZCO donates to Education. The 78 motorbikes plus 2 banana boats were valued at US $180,000. Unicef adds, without irony, that the government minister "pointed out that Government has enjoyed a rich collaboration with Unicef over the years." (back)

4. A reliable source who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous told us of an INGO request for permission to set up a new project. "How many vehicles will you buy?" the government official asked. "None. We'll just local transportation, or rent a car and driver as needed." Permission was denied. (back)

5. In The Road to Hell Michael Maren tells of how an army major "charged landing fees and entrance fees and made a fortune from every relief plane that landed" at an airport in Somalia. (back)

6. It is not only NGOs that do this, of course. In Making Globalization Work, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes how foreign corporations get things done: "Firms, of course, do not necessarily offer the bribes themselves. They hire a 'facilitator,' who is given enough money to 'facilitate' the deal. What he does, how he facilitates, they don't know and don't want to know." (back)