Depending on where you are sitting while you read these words, it may be hard to imagine how far the cancer of corruption has infected certain parts of the world.
So let's do a little test, shall we?
If you can answer YES to any of the following questions, you may be familiar with the evil scourge of corruption...
Have you ever asked your neighbour, a 14 year old girl, why she has never been to school and been told that she cannot afford the informal payments demanded by the teachers?
Have you been repeatedly stopped by policemen standing on a street corner for no reason other than that your headlight was on during the day, and therefore you must pay a "spot fine" of $5 that goes straight into the cop's pocket?
Have you ever applied for some official document only to get the run-around for weeks, until you realize that being nice isn't working and an "informal payment" is expected?
Have you ever tried to bring in a shipment of medical supplies or emergency items only to see them rot away at the wharf while you negotiate down the crazy "tax" expected by the men in customs uniforms?
If so, you will know what I mean when I say: corruption is a CANCEROUS scourge that destroys communities and suffocates the poor.
Its effects are particularly devastating for those who can't afford to pay the informal fees and bribes necessary to get ahead. As a result, the poor are excluded from society and unfairly disadvantaged.
The Bible is clear that integrity will bring stability to society while corruption brings destruction (Prov. 29:4). So, corruption is an issue of injustice, that we as followers of Jesus, are called to battle against with all our wisdom and strength.
With this in mind, here are 5 principles that I've developed to help navigate these tricky waters....
1. Examine yourself first
For years I have read Isaiah 58 as a deadly serious warning. If you think you can get away with serving God while simultaneously ripping people off, God will deal with you. Big time.
That includes your employees, your home help, your tuk tuk driver, the lady on the corner who sells you coconuts, the local barber and anyone else who receives an income from you.
Let me give you an example. Say a cleaner or nanny works for you full time. Do you pay her the "going rate" or do you pay her a living wage that provides enough income to adequately care for her family? If the former, you have allowed the market to guide your ethics - rather than the Biblical principle of justice. Take a moment to reflect on the implications of this.
I also try not to let people exploit THEMSELVES. I once watched a mechanic spend 2 hours fixing my motorbike, who then only charged me a couple of dollars for the parts. I pressed more money into his hand than he requested, to make sure he was fairly paid for his labour. There are many times I have offered more than requested to a vendor or contractor (especially someone in poverty who undervalues their own work).
We simply cannot point the finger at local corruption, when we ourselves are not treating others with integrity. This is the basic first step of being the change we want to see in the world.
2. Use your power and privilege to fight the dirty, rotten system
When dealing with government officials, I operate under the simple belief that they should do the job they are paid to do. If I pay them extra to do their official work, or to jump the queue, I am disadvantaging the poor, who cannot pay and therefore cannot access these government services.
In doing so, I perpetuate injustice.
As someone with more resources and power than the average poor Cambodian, who better to kick up a fuss than me? Who better to push back on an unjust system? After all, I can weather the fury of a bribe-seeking bureaucrat better than someone who could easily be thrown in prison. I have the resources to keep the battle going a lot longer than someone who is just desperately trying to feed their family that day.
As the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said, "Use your liberty to promote ours."
3. The end does not justify the means
This is a crucial principle to get our heads around. It's an issue of trust. A good project or vision to help the poor does not mean you can cut any corner or grease any palm in order to make it come about. If God wants you to achieve a certain goal, He will surely open the doors necessary to do so in His timing. Too often, we justify making things happen because we believe it is God's will.
Here in Cambodia, we tried to register our organization with a certain government ministry for more than two years. They simply refused to cooperate and kept us running around in circles endlessly. Man did I get annoyed! Eventually, we gave up and registered under a different government department. I wonder if that was God's plan all along and I was just too thick to hear his guidance.
4. Be innocent as doves, but wise as serpents
Jesus said he is sending us out among wolves and we will need to be as cunning and wise as serpents, while still remaining innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). Here are a couple of examples of ways we've dealt with local goverment employees:
- We show our appreciation with relationship-building gifts (not money) only after services have been performed. This is to clearly communicate that the gift is not contingent on the service, while still enhancing the relationship.
- We occasionally will pay for government officials to help us above and beyond the call of their usual job. For example, outside working hours, or in a capacity that exceeds the service that is normally offered. An example of this would be employing a government official to complete an official task for us as a middle-man.
- We are willing to pay fees requested, as long as there is an official receipt. This forces them to be transparent about whether a fee is officially sanctioned or not.
At all times, we will ask the question – “Will this disadvantage the poor in any way?”
5. Look for win-win solutions
Many times there is a way for everyone to benefit from a particular situation. By looking for a win-win solution, doors can be opened that were previously shut tight. Perhaps the local government officials can be given the credit for a particular initiative.
For example, a couple of months ago, we were meeting with a local goverment official to seek permission for a building project. During the conversation, she mentioned that she had received a request from 20 families who had been flooded out of their homes. She seemed genuinely concerned. Later that day we contacted her and offered to drop off sacks of rice for these families at her office for her to distribute. Through this simple act, her popularity with the people was enhanced, the poor benefitted and our relationship was strengthened. That's a win-win situation.
Working on the margins of society in messy, messed-up places will put you in a lot of difficult situations. Things are never black and white and there are times you will be in agony and uncertainty because there seems to be no good way forward. As followers of Jesus, we are called to live lives of integrity and concern for the poor.
I'd love to hear your tips and principles for dealing with corruption. Share them with the rest of us in the comments below.