Sunday, 24 May 2015

To bribe or not to bribe....

The answer seems obvious, doesn't it?

Well, I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in a rural area of Uganda about fifty miles or so from Kampala, there lived a young woman with three children, two girls and a boy, for whom, like all parents, she wanted the best. Sadly, the marriage started going wrong, the children witnessing and possibly experiencing situations which were at least verbally, and perhaps physically, violent. The woman decided to leave. Most women leaving a marriage in Uganda also have to leave their children behind them. So, she ran away, disappearing into the anonymity of Kampala.

By the time we knew her, she had got a job as a caretaker for the flats where we lived. The hours were long, from 7 o'clock in the morning until about 8 o'clock at night, or whenever the askari (guard) eventually turned up. Add to that at least an hour's travelling time at the beginning and the end of the day, to and from the two roomed-house beyond the Ring Road which she and the children shared with her sister.

The woman used to work for us a couple of times a week, doing our washing, wiping away the omnipresent red dust, mopping our floors. Like many maids, she liked working for a mzungu family. They tended to treat maids better and pay them more than the usual pittance. In her spare time, she wove raffia mats and bowls in brilliant traditional colours, though she didn't make much money. Her sister made clothes for sale. Between them, they managed to pay the rent and feed and educate the children.

Given the circumstances, the children did well, though life was always on a knife-edge for there was never any spare money. Sickness, for example regular bouts of malaria, were a disaster. Though treatment is cheap, even that was beyond their finances.

Our departure from Uganda was a source of considerable worry. By then we were her only real source of income as the landlord hadn't paid her for months. She was tempted to join one of the other maids who had gone abroad with her employer, but I persuaded her against it. The media had reported accounts of Ugandan women who thought they were going to Dubai for cleaning jobs and ended up as slaves. We left her our household goods for use or sale, gave her a buffer of cash and paid her elder daughter's university fees up front. We hoped a Diploma in Micro-finance would keep her daughter safe and give her the vocational skills she needed to stay afloat and support her family.

Almost immediately, however, things began to wobble. First the woman lost her job, the landlord giving it instead to his sister. Then the family were evicted and she returned to her parents' village. We tried to keep them afloat by paying the younger children's schooling, moving them into a boarding hostel so that at least they had a bed to sleep on and three meals a day. To her credit, the elder daughter got a job as librarian, earning enough to pay for her keep and travel to and from lectures. She recently graduated, to the enormous pride of her family.

So far, so good.

However, news of the graduation travelled to her father's village. In Uganda, an educated person is seen as a source of income for the extended family. Her uncle tracked them down and started demanding money with menaces. Last week, the girl and her aunt went to the police. The uncle, however, paid a bribe and the case was dropped. Undeterred, they then went to the District Police Commissioner (DPC). He said he would look into the case, but only if he received 'facilitation'.

What is 'facilitation'? It is extra money that people in Uganda ask for in addition to their salary or wages, and without which they won't do the jobs they are paid to do.

How much 'facilitation' did the DPC require from the daughter?

400,000 Ugandan shillings - about £127, an enormous amount for a poor family, probably two or three times what the elder daughter earns each month. They were in an impossible situation. If they paid the bribe, they might or might not get the result they wanted as they didn't know whether the uncle would increase his own bribe. They were also making themselves vulnerable to continued demands for money from the police and the family, particularly if the uncle made counter accusations, as he had started to do. If they didn't pay the bribe, then the uncle might carry out his threats. He had already started removing their possessions. They couldn't risk him continually coming back for more.

Fortunately I wasn't party to the discussion about whether or not to bribe the DPC. That decision was made by the family. They scraped together 100,000 shillings and the uncle was arrested. Whether the bribe will work or not, we don't yet know. The rest would have to come later. The DPC will decide this week, a god-like power as this case hasn't even reached the law courts.

Bribery is endemic in Uganda. You bribe teachers for good exam results, the askari to let you into the queue for the doctor, and the police all the time.

One of our colleagues once asked a teacher why the school building had no roof. 'The headteacher ate it.' he said. ('Eating' is a euphemism for stealing money or, as in this case, iron sheeting for roofs.)

However, this is not just a story about corruption. After all, we also have corruption in our society, though not usually so blatant. Council officers in Edinburgh have just been convicted of accepting bribes from a building firm in exchange for contracts. The Poulson affair disclosed corruption in council building contracts up and down the north of England. We have had 'cash-for-questions' in the House of Commons. British officials and businessmen have received bribes for arms deals with unpleasant regimes.

No, this is also a story about the position of women in Ugandan society and the sometimes destructive power of the extended family. Women have minimal rights, whatever the law might say. When your husband dies, his family may turn you out of the house and take absolutely everything you own: your family's sleeping mats, the cooking pans, the storage pots, the blankets. Even if you own land, that too will be taken from you, as recent court cases have shown. How can you prove anything in a country in which many rural people are functionally illiterate, births, marriages and deaths go unregistered and land ownership is often unrecorded? The decisions will always go in favour of those who can pay the largest bribes.

And such treatment of women is not just typical of Uganda. Here is a story which appeared in The Nation, Malawi's main newspaper, this week.

A young woman's husband died three years after they married, leaving her with a baby. Immediately, his family stole her possessions and sold the house without her knowledge. The victim went to live with her mother. A friend suggested she engage the Legal Aid Bureau in Blantyre. This agency, founded in 2010, is mandated by the government to provide legal aid to those who cannot afford private lawyers. As she earned only 200-500 kwacha per day as a farm labourer (40p - £1), it took her two months to earn enough money to pay for the bus fare to Blantyre (2,000 kwacha or £4). However, when she got to the office, she was told, to her great distress, that there were no lawyers and she had to return in a month.

This she did, having sold her mother's piglets. Fortunately this time a lawyer was available but said that the case was 'complicated' and the office did not have enough money to pursue it. He asked her for a contribution of 100,000 kwacha (£207), an unimaginable amount.

However, determined that she had justice on her side, she returned a month later and said that if she won the case she would sell her property and pay the lawyer out of the proceeds. However, the lawyer demanded 50% upfront, so she dropped the case. And that was that.

So there we have it: two stories with unsatisfactory endings. Both are true. Both happened within the last couple of weeks. Similar events are taking place across the world every week of the year.

What struck me about these stories, however, is the determination of the women involved. They want justice. They confront officials. They fight for their children. They bring up children who will be able to fight harder than they were able to do. Corruption in such situations is not just about faceless bureaucrats and commercial firms. It affects the very survival of families on the edge.

And how has this story affected me? What did I do about the situation facing my Ugandan friends?

I thought long and hard. Then I closed my eyes to corruption and transferred some money for indeterminate use. If I 'don't know' what it's being used for, I can't accuse myself of paying a bribe, can I?

Is it going to solve anything apart from the immediate situation? No.

Is it going to increase the prevalence of bribery in Uganda? Yes, if that's possible.

What would you have done in my place?

You may also be interested in some of these posts from my now discontinued Uganda blog: The Ritchies in Uganda

What price compassion in Uganda?

When goodbye really means farewell

Should the west stop giving aid to Uganda?

What were we doing in Uganda and did we make a difference?

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