Corruption and Culture: wasta is embedded but not inevitable.

Last week I read a great paper: The Impact of Favouritism on the Business Climate, A Study on Wasta in Jordan. It was based on a research project conducted in 2006 by the German Development Institute. SO much of it is relevant to my project here in Sudan that I spent the whole day scribbling notes and quivering with excitement (and yes, I do recognize that this is probably not the normal emotional response to such an article but PhD students have strange emotional responses to a variety of seemingly benign stimuli).

First of all, it made me realize how much corruption specialists in Africa and the Arab world need to talk to one another. Take for instance: Jordan. It is a tribal society operating beneath an authoritarian regime that uses patron-client relationships to shore up its support base. It is experiencing a dramatic yet temporary economic boom due to a war in a nearby country, which has brought both large numbers of people and rent flows across the border. In addition to the relocation of military personnel and aid groups from said country, it has also received its own huge influx of aid and yes, it is also experiencing a construction boom in its capital due to returning oil migrants and their remittances. Can anyone see the similarities with Sudan? And say, a whole bunch of other African countries?

It makes sense to look beyond your region for clues and inspiration. I am lucky to study Sudan in this regard because it straddles both the Arab world and the rest of the African continent so I am exposed to two sets of literature. One thing I have noticed about these two worlds is the way in which corruption is talked about. In the Arab world, corruption is generally seen as upholding stabile (but authoritarian) regimes, while in Africa, corruption is seen as a de-stabilizing force that needs to be stamped out from above. There have been attempts to move away from this approach,  Blundo and Olivier de Sardan’s “Everyday Corruption and the State: Citizens and Public Officials in Africa” and John Githongo’s work on Kenya show how it is deeply embedded in society; tackling corruption requires broad-scale social change from the bottom up. Some corrupt practices are upheld by traditional values about respect for family and loyalty to kin and tribal groups and sometimes it is so commonplace that people might not perceive it as out of the ordinary, as something that can even be changed. It is seen as inevitable.  

As I was reading the Jordanian piece, I began to think of my own reaction towards the preferential treatment I receive in Sudan because of my gender. For example, when I go to buy electricity, I am ALWAYS shepherded to the front of the very long queue. The first time it happened, I was reluctant. No! I said to myself, I will not give in to this patriarchal system in which men think I am unable to stand in the heat like everyone else. We should be equal! But then the men really insisted and made me feel quite bad. And of course, it was a bit hot in the office, so I decided- just this one time- to oblige. The next time I went, I was in a special hurry because I had to get to an interview, so I decided- just this second time- and then so on and so on. Now when I go to buy electricity, I don’t need to be obliged. This is what we women do! I know my rights! I have become embedded! I push the front with a certain degree of entitlement and no-one says a word. Because that’s the thing; the men WANT me to cut them. They expect me to cut them. And they might very well tease me if I don’t. If I were to resist, I would probably be seen not only as a bit of a weirdo, but also as a bit of a social deviant as well and I am guessing if a Sudanese woman refused this preferential treatment, she would be perceived as rejecting her own culture. She would be mocked by all present. It is very difficult to resist culturally sanctioned forms of privilege… especially when one is late… or particularly hot. 

The Jordanian article does a good job of showing that while wasta is thoroughly integrated within Jordanian society and is often defended as a form of tradition, it is still widely perceived as undesirable and something that people would like to change about their society. I like this approach; understanding that it is embedded in culture and yet not “letting it off the hook” in some bow to cultural relativism.

Last week, I read another article about corruption: John Hooker’s “Corruption from a Cross-Cultural Perspective”. Hooker defines corruption as any process that undermines or corrupts a cultural system. He argues that while the West sees relationship-based business practices as inherently corrupt and undesirable, in certain parts of the world, they maintain the trust in the economy:

“In much of the world, however, cronyism is a foundation for trust.  A purchasing agent does business with friends because friends can be trusted.  He or she may not even ask to see the company financials, since this could insult the other’s honor.  It is assumed that cronies will follow through on the deal, not because they fear a lawsuit, but because they do not wish to sacrifice a valuable relationship in an economy where relationships are the key to business.  In such a system it is in the company’s interest for the agent to do business with friends, and cronyism may therefore present no conflict of interest. ” (Hooker, 2008: 3)

Now I see the benefit of relations in business. IN every part of the world, business is structured around relationships and intimate trust between partners. However, for every relationship, there are others involved; those who do not have such close relations and are therefore excluded from the cronyism. This is the biggest problem with corruption in my eyes; in that it excludes and carves society into those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. Sometimes this ‘in’ and ‘out’ is based on characteristics such as family, tribe, and gender- things that cannot (easily) be changed or faked- and sometimes this ‘in’ and ‘out’ entails political and civic engagement with the state. Corruption can turn the state into a private club and that just ain’t right anywhere in the world.

Most importantly, by excusing corruption as a manifestation of traditional culture, you preclude the fact that culture can change. Cultures can become more inclusive of outsiders and more amenable to new technologies and ideas. New modern Sudanese businesses are a testament of this fact. They bring in foreign management experts at the beginning to set up systems of employment and management, but then they make these systems their own. They don’t want to hire foreigners forever; they usually have a strategy to ‘Sudanize’ their businesses in the long run. We should not view such systems as inherently Western; they can be moulded to fit different cultural systems and be made part of that culture. Of course, we also have to question how ‘accessible’ these modern businesses are to ordinary people (but that is another post!).

Which brings me to my last point, relationship-based business practices are not always efficient or sustainable. When it comes to employment, hiring someone solely on the basis of her relationship with you is probably not going to get you the best candidate for the job. It is all very well hiring your cousin to man your sweet shop, but when we start talking about important industries like water, petrol and health, you might want to dip into their qualifications just a bit to see if they have ANY experience with water, petrol or health. Wasta is not just unfair; it is also inefficient and possibly dangerous. Take for instance, the awarding of pharmaceutical contracts by state insurance companies: do we want to approve a drug from a company that has a close relationship with the manager of the insurance agency or do we want one that will provide safe and effective drugs to members of the public? I think the choice is clear. It doesn’t matter what ‘culture’ you subscribe to, for certain things, we should rely on rules, not relationships.

I suppose what the John Hooker article was trying to argue is that it is necessary to pay attention to cultural beliefs and the way practices are embedded in peoples’ ordinary lives. The GDI article gives four potential reasons why wasta persists in Jordanian society:

“ (i) because many people are not aware of the fact that they can reach many of their goals without wasta, (ii) because there is little incentive to refrain from using it, (iii) because of socio-cultural norms which keep it in existence, and (iv) because of Jordan’s political system, which benefits the political elite.” (Loewe et al., 2007: 2)

Some of these reasons must be tackled in a top-down approach that deal with the state, but some are more dispersed. We can start looking at public information, incentive systems and ways to lower the costs of non-corrupt practices. In the GDI article, they talk about how governments can streamline their regulation to make wasta redundant: why would anyone bother resorting to wasta if they can do things without it? When we talk about hiring, we can lower the information costs for companies by providing a centralized database of candidates. We can make sure qualifications mean something so that strangers are trusted. We can work with businesses and universities to insure that information about graduates is accurate and that they have learnt the right skills while at university. We can employ more equitable training and internship schemes that give everyone the opportunity to acquire experience.

Yes, corruption is governed by culture… but culture can change!

One thing that the Hooker article seems to neglect is that contemporary African corruption is partly a result of colonial corruption; Indirect Rule and Native Administration and that “African” (never mind mentioning the individual countries) culture has been changing for centuries and centuries. It is not a romantic constant. He ends his article by saying:

“Yet African cultures kept the human species alive for countless millennia, while they were the only cultures.  In an age increasingly concerned with sustainability, we may see a return to some of the communal values of traditional cultures, while practices that are now dominant on the world stage may come to be seen as corrupting because of their unsustainability. ” (Hooker, 2008: 17)

I think the main problem with such articles is that they do not dig deep enough. They try to survey the whole world in twenty pages and then ask us to be culturally sensitive. It seems highly irresponsible to defend corrupt practices as culture without understanding the cultures in question in the first place. If you want to be culturally sensitive then you have to listen to what people from that culture are saying. In the Jordanian article, the reader gets a very clear impression that people do not want wasta to carry on as usual. It may be sustainable in the sense that it is deeply embedded in society and difficult to change, but it is not particularly sustainable if we think about the frustration and marginalization of sub-groups. In Sudan, I have the same impression. Most people want to talk to me about wasta because they are not happy about it. Some hate it because they are excluded. Others hate it because they see that it is unfair to their friends and colleagues and others yet, because it is in inefficient and unsustainable for business. Of course everyone tries to resort to it because sometimes there is no other way… but that does not mean it is inescapable. We can be creative in our policies and we must listen to ordinary people: why do they engage in it and what might encourage managers and business owners to adopt alternative practices?

I sometimes like to compare corruption with environmental costs. There is a cost to society that is not being addressed by conventional cost-benefit analysis- I think there are some interesting parallels to make. I remember when we studied environmental management systems at LSE. We learnt that while most big businesses eventually adopt environmental management systems either because they are cost efficient or because they have come under lobbying pressure, small businesses are less willing to do so. They see themselves as too small to care. And yet such small businesses account for over 50% of the UK business carbon emissions. They also hire over 50% of employees. If we can find ways of bringing these companies together and lowering the costs of environmental measures for them as a group, then we can get at a huge chunk of carbon emissions in the UK.

In a similar vein, in Sudan we might be able to encourage big businesses to adopt equal opportunity hiring practices because it makes economic sense for them to do so- they want the best candidates for the job and they can invest time and money into finding them- but for small businesses, this is simply not possible. This is why it is so important to find ways to lower the costs of information about candidates and make qualifications really mean something to employers. We have to find creative ways of changing the incentives of business to make them forsake wasta on their own.

It is reassuring to read papers like the Jordanian piece because we can learn lessons from other countries.  I really liked hearing about how their project had created a public discussion about wasta in Jordan. Their report was seen as proof that wasta was hurting the economy. I also appreciated that the team talked about corruption in a way that people could relate to. By labeling something as “CORRUPTION” you immediately make people feel like they are under attack. Wasta, on the other hand, is something that people want to talk about. In my own research, I see this every day. I am not so sure I would have the same success talking to people about Fasad (corruption). These little things matter. This is why we must be culturally sensitive, because we need people to talk about it openly and frankly. But we shouldn’t give in to cultural relativism and forget that it can be unfair and exclusive.. nor should we ever view it as something inevitable. Culture can change. 


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