There were signs all over Iloilo City when I was there – urging people to ask for receipts.
(Right next to those asking people to vote NO on the Reproductive Health Bill — making for an interesting political display of corruption and sex.)
Businesses had all sorts of clever incentives to encourage their customers to keep an eye out for their receipts — free goods, deductions from bills, or vouchers for subsequent purchases.
This is motivated by a desire to formalise the economy, reduce corruption — and ostensibly to increase city taxes.
Australia — model nation?
One thing I’ve discovered in my travels this year is that Australians are renowned for being uncorrupt, law-abiding citizens.
When I was in Ghana, a friend told me she wouldn’t move to Australia because “it would be too hard to do business.” In Greece I was told by a former Australian — with eyebrows suggestively raised — that it was “nice” to be able to negotiate directly with the person you are speaking to.
I guess this might be part of the reason I’m so oblivious to corruption. In Ghana I paid a bribe to a police officer without realising. The Philippines is renowned as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and yet, despite doing business there I did not witness to any “unusual” interactions. In Indonesia I baulked at the tax rate, before I was told it was only a “special tax”, applicable only in “special” situations.
I just don’t get it
I just don’t.
I keep having faith in the rules. I just think — well, if you keep following them, you’ll get where you need to get to, eventually. Even where corruption is pervasive. With patience you’ll jump through all the hoops, pass all the red tape.
Except of course, in all those situations when you can’t.
When I was in India, I was told of a dedicated NGO worker who was building schools for disadvantaged kids, and had to pay $2,000 in bribes to extend his visa..
In the Philippines, I was told of a development project which received around $2,000 in funds. But these funds would not be released by the local government, unless a $200 “processing charge” was paid.
When I was in Mauritius, I was told of a lucrative exclusive mobile phone contract which was awarded, after a “gift” of several very luxurious cars was received.
C.K. Prahalad in his book Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid recounts story after story of agricultural workers, who were routinely exploited by the only purchasers they were able to access — middlemen who “weighed products incorrectly” and shifted purchasing prices at a moment’s notice.
What would you do?
I’d like to think I’d be a pillar of society in the face of corruption, just like this inspiring Acumen Fund project who stood his ground and refused to pay any bribe to a local government for his local development project.
But the reality is probably very different.
Would I want to stop working on a school project I was utterly dedicated to? Would I want my development project to stop? Would I want to be responsible for slowing cheap connectivity to Mauritius?
A friend in Nepal related a situation in his engineering work where a contractor had put a significant amount of pressure on him to approve sub-par work. His manager told my friend that he had no choice, he had to sign it off. If he didn’t, he might lose his job.
This reminded me of difficult situations I’d seen the engineers at my former workplace in.
Except in this case, my Nepali friend got paid (a significant sum) to sign it off.
A receipt is not enough
My friend in Mexico told me that I had no idea about how difficult it was to evade corruption. In Mexico she was labelled an evangelical for imploring her friends to stop encouraging corruption. They would laugh at her.
In theory, we all are on the side of my Mexican friend. Corruption reduces access to information — making business and general everyday life trickier. It takes even more power out of the hands of those who can least afford it.
But what would you do if your boss told you you would lose your job if you didn’t approve a set of shoddy documents?
And I’d been thinking it was enough to ask for a receipt.