Corruption makes the world go round

We all complained to our driver Why does it cost 20,000 shillings to reach the South Sudanese border – only 100km!”.

Our driver just laughed.

“Let me show you”. He grabbed a bunch of old bank notes out of his pocket and shoved them into the glovebox. As we made our way down the perfectly paved road to the South Sudanese border, a policeman soon stopped. The driver slowed, turned around and asked us passengers How much should we give this one?”

He then grabbed a banknote, worth $1.30, and with nonchalence smiled at the police woman and handed her the money through the window. She was none too happy about this transparent corruption, especially after spying yours truly, the “mzunguin the car. The normal Ugandan routine is for the driver to leave the vehicle and pay the corruption “road toll” with discretion.

After a couple of police stops we became excited, eager to see how the next officer would respond to our drivers brazen and transparent payment method. He made his point well, and after seeing how much money he had to waste on corruption, we all stopped complaining about the high ticket price.

All told he (or should I say we) paid 5 police stops $6.50 in bribes, about 20% of the total passenger fare. A hefty premium for the pleasure of using a World Bank built public road.

Corruption has been front and center of the news recently here in Uganda, as Mary Goretti the minister of Karamoja spent easter in jail after stealing 5000 corrugated iron roofing sheets intended for people in Karamoja – the poorest region of this poor country.

But corruption doesn’t just happen “Somewhere else” in poorer countries

It’s easy to forget in the sanitised west, just how much of a role corruption plays in running our world, not just dictator-led low income countries like Uganda. Yes its 2023, but corruption continues to work its power-wielding magic like we are in 1800s New York City. And these cases I’m about to share are only those that got caught, the tip of the iceburg.

In just the last month, there have been a shocking raft of corruption scandals which hit front page news spanning the globe – with no continent (bar perhaps Antarctica) clean. I hope you enjoy the less-than-fully-serious corruption romp around the world.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have shocked me that a whole group of MPs at the highest level of European parliament were straight up taking cash for favours from Qatar, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and who knows who else. Eva Kaili, formerly a darling of the EU parliament was found with bags and a briefcase of cash totalling close to 1 MILLION DOLLARS. You couldn’t make it up.

The sacks of cash clearly worked their magic, as Kaili proceeded to describe Qatar as a “frontrunner in labour rights” in an EU parliament speech.

Accurate in a way – I suppose they paid her pretty well.

Australasia (New Zealand, specifically)
New Zealand consistently ranks in the top 3 least corrupt countries in the world on Transperancy International’s index, but we are far from squeaky clean, corruption still finds a way.

One of our cabinet ministers was busted leaking sensitive information from confidential cabinet meetings to his business buddies who donated money to his campaign. Perhaps he was helping them them pay even less tax than the pathetic 9% the pay right now. I shouldn’t have been surprised he didn’t get locked up for this. Steal a loaf of bread and you might go to prison. Illegally leak information to your donors from a position of great power and you don’t even lose your job (he’s still in parliament). Who says white collar crime doesn’t pay?

Ok so its not technically its own continent, but it did vote to leave the EU so here goes.

MP Scott Benton was busted by a reporter led sting offering privileged information to help a gambling firm make more money. He offered “the direct ear of a minister who is actually going to make these decisions” and a copy of a gambling white paper 2 days before publications.

He agreed to take 2000 to 4000 pounds in cash for a couple of days work illegally fighting for the cause of gambling companies. What a great public servant!

And yet again, the guy kept his job, outrageous stuff.

Judge Clarent Thomas, of the U.S.A high court has previously waxed lyrical about his love of simple things. He once said “I prefer Walmart parking lots to the beaches”. Oh how I wish that was true.

In reality, for over 20 years he has enjoyed multiple all expenses paid vacations at a Republican donor billionaire’s mansion and private island resorts, worth perhaps millions of dollars.

AND this same billionaire donated money to a political group founded by his wife, which paid her a salary of $120,000 a year

AND this same billionaire paid his grandnephew’s school fees to a private military academy.

I’m sure this never played on his mind in any mega-rich friendly court decisions.

But I shouldn’t only focus on just Thomas when it comes to Supreme court corruption. The rot goes deep. One judge’s wife took 10 million dollars in commission from elite law firms, even while one of those firms argued a case before her husband. Democratic judge Stephen Breyer also took a staggering 225 trips subsidised by rich families and business moguls over 14 years.

That’s 17 trips a year on average – when did the guy find time to work?

Charity and NGOs
OK so Charity and NGOs aren’t a “continent”, but I can’t resist….

The biggest charity corruption feeder is Government to Government Aid. The covid response was a great example. The West poured money into the pockets of rich government officials under the banner of covid charity. Considering only what was reported from the recipient countries themselves, an eye watering 1.78 billion dollars of Covid aid was reported stolen from African countries. Who can say how high the actual figure was?

Kenya – 541 million dollars stolen. Cameroon- 333 million stolen. Enough money to vaccinate their whole populations for covid 5x over.

But corruption in charity reaches beyond government to government aid. World Vision has been rocked by multiple scandals, including the head of their Gaza operation being convicted in an Israeli court of passing 50 million dollars to terrorists and allegations of nepotism in a 2.5 million dollar printing contract in Australia.

Even with our best efforts, all NGOs will suffer from corruption. No-one is immune, even in rare cases at OneDay Health our nurses have stolen money from their own facilities. The most transparent NGOs will acknowledge corruption as ever-present reality in their organisation and do their best to minimise the rot. My favourite example is GiveDirectly, who publicly acknowledge the inevitable corruption within their organisation.

“$241,633 was lost to fraud this year — that’s about what we expect… Every major nonprofit experiences losses from external fraud, but few rigorously investigate and safeguard against it; fewer still openly report on it. We believe in being transparent with these details and sharing the process that prevents and investigates these losses. “


I’ll share one more mind blowing story. Late last year, a Ugandan Army general got into a serious land conflict with residents, about land he had bought for 30 million US dollars

Yes you heard me correctly, 30 million US dollars.

Forget the paltry 1 million dollars handed over in the EU scandal, somehow an army general in one of the poorest countries on earth got hold of a fortune which he didn’t even care about hiding. He was even happy to brazenly buy land with the money!

Even earning even the highest possible army salary in Uganda he’d have to work for about 500 years to amass that much cash. But of course he didn’t need that long, only a few years as head of the ironically funded “Operation wealth creation” – a Ugandan government project apparently supposed to support the poor with agricuture.

Well the operation certainly created wealth for someone…

Is Corruption getting worse?
Although there are many doomsayers, over the last 50 years progress has been made on many important development indicators. Road networks, Girls’ education, childhood mortality, childhood vaccination, cellphone coverage and nutrition have all greatly improved worldwide especially in the poorest regions of the world.

After previous improvements however, progress on corruption seems to have stalled. Both Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index and The World Bank’s “Control of Corruption World Governance Indicator” have been relatively static over the last 10-20 years.

Its not really getting worse, but it ain’t getting better either.

If we had the taste of power and the opportunity to dip our hands in the golden bowl would we be any different? Would we pluck the forbidden fruit? Are we more righteous or do we just not have access to illicit cash?

I’m sure I would do better. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.

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1 Response to Corruption makes the world go round

  1. Pete Hill says:

    Thanks Nick for another great article.

    Two thoughts. First, what should an expat do in a resource poor country when he sees corruption. I heard of a charity working in Zambia constructing schools where the British worker on the ground saw the payment of extras as simply fitting into the local scene – when in Rome. When working in Uganda and also Sri Lanka, when I spotted some corruption and brought it to the British people in charge, nothing was done. Both of these operations were Christian and we’re also successful. It has made me reflect on whether my personal rottweiler approach was counter-productive.

    Second, it is easy to fall into the trap.When I was having some reflections on this topic I believe the Lord brought to my notice a time when I was a general practitioner in the UK and Prime Minister Tony Blair was noisily trying to raise standards in the NHS and demonstrate the efficacy of targets. The local NHS agency would phone reception and say on which date they would be assessing our appointment availability. My manager would call me and asked for permission to block that day and only open the day before so that our availability would look good and to my deep shame, without a thought, I said yes. This was corruption.

    Keep up all your brilliant work in Uganda!

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