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