Through my work for an American-based democracy-building institute, principally in South and Southeast Asia, I have dealt with corruption in different forms. But I acquired the tools of my trade earlier, as a political activist in Nova Scotia. And sadly, to this point, there is no type of corruption I did not first encounter back home.
Federal transfer payments to have-not regions offer Canadians a close-to-home example of how aid dollars, in their billions, can disappear into flawed megaprojects or the pockets of provincial elites. Donors are left frustrated by the failure of interventions to achieve desired goals and by the growth in affected regions of a dependency culture that saps economic and cultural strength. Corruption takes root when donors expect failure and recipients know that dismal performance will bring no adverse consequences. Examining the roots of corruption and insisting on its eradication are essential to Canada’s domestic and international development programs.
The police in Phnom Penh
Corruption has many faces. Living in Phnom Penh, I cannot get used to driving during the day with my headlights off. The Cambodian police officer who pulls me over explains, “Driving with your lights on in the day is the practice in Canada because it is dark all the time, because of the snow.” In Cambodia, it is the practice to drive with your lights off during the day – and often at night – and it is also the practice, the officer tells me, to give policemen who stop you, whatever the pretext, twenty U.S. dollars. Sensing my reluctance, he bargains down to ten dollars, then five, then one. Eventually, we’re down to a can of Angkor beer and a pack of twelve-cent cigarettes, but still I won’t pay.
Cambodian police earn about $20 a month, so unless they supplement their income with bribes they can’t feed their families. But I’m not offering a good return on this officer’s time investment. Cambodian traffic police are a fairly benign species, and I know he’ll soon move on to easier prey, leaving me with a feeling of self-righteousness that, as an honest Canadian, I value greatly.
For Cambodians, corruption is part of daily life. As in 19th-century New York, firefighters battle to be first at a blaze but do not start the water until the homeowner pays, or offers the pick of salvaged possessions. You can get a driver’s licence by taking an exam, or you can pay US$25 and it magically appears. Teachers in government schools teach only those children who pay an extra fee.