Bribes, legal and otherwise

by Sasha Alyson

In Zimbabwe, Unicef provided vehicles to the education ministry “to facilitate the syllabi review process….”(1)

Unicef's 2014 annual report for Zimbabwe reports that it gave "vehicles, computer equipment and software" to help review the curriculum.

Vehicles? To facilitate the syllabi review process?!?! I try to avoid snark, but I’m only human. Usually, aid agencies keep things vague: “We supported the Ministry of Education to develop a much-needed new curriculum.” Readers can imagine a Swedish Unicefer and Zimbabwean official poring over the new textbook. In this case, someone in the Unicef office revealed more than they should have.

It happens occasionally. Unicef cannot send out a memo saying, “Do not mention that we give away cars to the government.” Memos leak. The entire system depends on an unspoken understanding that certain details must remain private.


It’s not an isolated case. A government minister 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.”

How had Unicef 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) Were all 78 motorbikes actually used for the designated purpose, rather than going to the minister’s friends or subordinates for personal use? Well, who’s going to check? Not Unicef, which values its friends in high places.

No matter that this was a decidedly temporary solution: If teachers only show up because somebody might drop by on a motorbike, what happens when the motorbikes break down, get stolen, or wear 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)

Is it a bribe, or just a contribution?

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(4)

The term “bribe” usually conjures up an image of cash being handed over. But that’s risky. In the United States, the preferred technique is that businesses eager to shape the law will make campaign contributions. In poor countries, U.N. agencies and Western NGOs that need a warm government welcome have their own methods:

• They provide cellphones, iPads, iPhones, laptops, and vehicles of all sorts to government staff, “to help them do their jobs.”

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

• They 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.

• They typically enter a small region to undertake a project, which will last for 1 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.(5)

• They willingly pay high fees for government services that would be free or cheap — except that the government knows the agency is willing to pay.(6)

In each case, a government worker 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, only cash will get results. But you don’t want to be caught on videotape as you hand it over. What to do? You hire a fixer.

A local fixer 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.(7)

With each bribe, the U.N. agency strengthens government desire to keep them in town, and it weakens the government link to its own citizenry. 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. UNICEF Annual Report 2014, Zimbabwe.

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. Teacher absenteeism runs about 20% in many majority-world countries, but motorbikes aren’t the solution. If these schools were providing an education that had value for the students, then community pressure would get the teachers to show up. Schools aren’t doing that.

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.”

Some will argue that maybe the motorbikes did help. Who can be sure? We can’t be sure. But we can be sure that when a foreign agency gives away motorbikes and then receives permission to run things as it wishes, that’s going to undermine government accountability to its own people. And U.N. agencies give away a lot. Unicef alone has given 240 motorbikes for “education” use in Cambodia, 49 for a sanitation program in Liberia, two pickup trucks and 48 motorbikes in Ghana, 1000 computers and 29 motorbikes in Ethiopia, and much more. Given the downsides of such large-scale giveaways, the U.N. has an ethical obligation to have an independent, objective evaluation of their benefits. I can find no evidence of such evaluations.

4. Jack 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 the same dynamic that 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.”

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. It is not only U.N. agencies and INGOs that use fixers, 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.”

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy and education work in Laos and Southeast Asia since 2006. He writes regularly about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.

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