The Meaning of Corruption

June 13, 2009


Hanna (name changed) sent 100 dollars to Dana (name changed) for her hourly services as a delivery person.  Hanna sent the money to Dana through Abu Ali (name changes), but somehow the money went missing.

Did Hanna never send it?  Did Dana receive it and lie?  Or did Abu Ali steal it in the transition?  Regardless, the missing funds are clearly evidence of corruption.

But corruption lies on a sliding scale, and its meaning is hard to capture.

A group of volunteers are sorting through used clothes to give away to some families.  They find a dress they like very much.  One friend says to another, “You should keep it!  It looks good on you.”  The volunteer tries the dress on and decides to keep it for herself.

None of the families would ever know about it anyway.  The clothes were donated by someone who probably just wanted to be rid of them.  And the dress was so pretty!

But the clothes were allocated for Iraqi refugees, and some young woman probably needed it more than the volunteer did because of her bleak environment.  The argument that she wouldn’t miss it having never seen it is also faulty— without even seeing the pretty dress, she already misses and wants it, because she never had it or anything like it.

Was the volunteer’s choice an act of corruption?

How about this: you are working for a small nonprofit.  People work hard and donate a little money to this nonprofit online.  Some of the money goes to your travel expenses, most to Iraqi refugees.  When you are in the store, you have to choose a brand of body soap, paid for by the nonprofit funds.

If you choose the most expensive soap, something you’d never buy at home, that’s corruption.

What if you choose the second most expensive brand, which you do use at home?
What if you choose the second cheapest brand?

Is anything but the cheapest brand really a moral option, given the slipperiness of the Corruption Slope?

I bring these individual quandaries to your attention because in all three cases, the missing money, the dress, and the soap, the answer is based on individual decision-making.

But what happens when an entire system functions on a norm of one-way gain?

“The workers at Caritas were normal people, even poor.  It’s been two years, and now the same people are driving nice cars and wearing gold watches.  And still, we are hardly receiving services from them.  Why does Caritas exist—for their salaries?”  Um Khalid (name changed) asks a legitimate question.

If a nonprofit has an overhead of say, 95 percent, one might say it merely exists to pay salaries to its employees.
Is that corruption?

It is very disturbing to interview NGO workers and discover that they not only make a very fine salary, but that they also never speak with, visit, or even know much about the Iraqi refugees they supposedly serve.

While some of the smaller NGOs are doing excellent work, I often leave meetings still repeating the same question: “I’m sorry, but what do you actually do?”

And I am not alone in asking this question.  In speaking with my Iraqi neighbors, I am forced to understand corruption as a collective rather than individual act, as a systematic process that has in fact become the acceptable “standard operating procedures”:

“Theses NGOs are all corrupt.  You can just look at Iraq from a helicopter—you’ll see a war zone, and then up at the top where it’s pretty safe, you’ll see NGO fortresses coming in to sweep up the mess for pay.  The longer the mess lasts, the more money they make.  Why would they really solve the problem?  The problem is their livelihood.”  Dr. Heba (name changed) articulated what Naomi Klein would call Disaster Capitalism.

This doesn’t mean that NGO vultures are swarming over the carcass of Iraq…

In my interfaces with NGO workers, they are well intended and as frustrated by the system as are Iraqis.

But this may be the crux of the issue: is it corruption to be paid for having good intentions alone?

Without effect, what weight do one’s good intentions have, and are they worth a yearly salary?

Intent doesn’t really matter to Iraqi refugees (in part because NGO workers rarely spend any time or space with the refugees in order to communicate their personal intentions, in the first place.)

Iraqi refugees whom I have talked to don’t hesitate for a second when asked about the meaning of corruption:
When your good intentions offer no effect, that is corruption.

…In which case the “business of doing good,” is as morally hazardous as any other sector.  The only difference is that in this business, people’s entire lives hang in the balance between one’s good intentions and the salary that comes with them.