Monday, March 7, 2011

May I see your license, please?

Until recently, every time I was in a private vehicle going to town, we had to stop at a moveable police road stop along the way. Usually we were waved through, but we noticed that others were sometimes detained. The purpose of the road block was not clear, it just seemed to materialize and be in operation some days, and not on others.

Now we have learned that such road blocks have been discontinued except when there is a specific reason to set it up. Why? They were revealed to be a mechanism for extorting bribes if the police could find some fault or defect with the vehicle or the driver. A number of traffic police had become quite wealthy from the system.

BBC reported recently that a survey conducted in developing countries identified corruption as the most important issue on people's minds. Certainly it has been in the news here in Zambia. This was especially true when international funding agencies withheld $300 million in grants for combating malaria and other diseases because the Health Ministry could not account for how last year's grant was spent.

Transparency International defines corruption as "abuse of entrusted power for private gain." Every year they produce a report providing a numerical value representing the perceived corruption in 175 of the world's countries. If a country receives a rating close to 10, they would be considered "highly clean". The Scandinavian countries and New Zealand receive ratings near that standard. A zero rating signifies a country perceived as "highly corrupt."
Zambia's 2010 rating is 3.0. USA's is 7.0. Three-quarters of the countries included in the list fall below a rating of 5, so corruption is quite a persistent problem in most of the world. It can be found in public works and construction projects, defense and arms contracts, and other areas of large government spending. Practices such as nepotism, political patronage, and bribery abound.

Zambia has an anti-corruption agency, but a weak legal system to back it up. Ordinary citizens seem resigned to corruption as an evil that cannot be stopped. We have not seen street demonstrations here as have been happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but at least one newspaper has called for Zambians to organize to protest corruption and demand better governance. I wonder how much more investment in education Zambia could afford if corruption were reduced. It's an expensive phenomenon, worthy of a campaign to confront it.

And what about America? A rating of 7 is nothing to be proud of. What can we do to become "cleaner"?

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