Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Thinking about corruption

“What is corruption?” This is the question that I asked to begin the Wednesday’s class discussion of the subject. It’s always important to clarify the definition of the subject, especially in the case of corruption, by its nature a murky topic.

The answers to the question were various – none wrong, none right. The first thing I told the students was that while I have some answers, I do not have all the answers. And the process of finding the answers is much more important than the answers themselves.

I did offer them my own rough definition of corruption. It’s not original – but I can’t remember the first source where I saw it: Corruption: the betrayal of public trust for private gain. I like this definition particularly because it does not involve breaking the law. The point I wanted to make to my students is that journalists can be – and are – corrupt when they betray public trust for private gain. This is an important point here and in many other countries where the free media remain relatively undeveloped. Journalists are known to threaten people with the publication of false and damaging information, unless they are paid off. They write articles in exchange for payment. They misuse the privileges of their job, using “press” stickers on their cars to evade traffic and parking restrictions.

The discussion that followed really was wonderful. The students – all young people between the ages of 16 and 30 – have great experience with corruption. When we began talking about the subject, they could easily offer concrete examples of how it affects their lives. One student told how a decision by the ministry of education virtually guarantees the sale of diplomas. Another student, one of the brightest in the class, told how entry into a university is essentially impossible without the payment of a bribe, even if he excels academically.

I concluded the discussion by asking them their opinions about what is the solution to the problem. I received answers that fell into two main categories: the solution to the problem lies with the individual and the solution lies with the government.

Both of these answers could be judged correct. We all bear individual responsibility for our correct behavior. We are responsible for our own morality, and a society composed of individuals who refuse to participate in corruption will not be corrupt. But a government ideally will aggregate the wishes of its subjects. If the people really do not want corruption, the government should respond to these wishes and effectively implement anti-corruption measures. In Azerbaijan, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the government effectively encourages corruption with a number of policies. The policy that grants economic monopolies to connected individuals is an abuse of public trust for private gain. The bidding process for contracts with the government is widely acknowledged to be completely corrupt. The list goes on and on. If the government depended on democratic consent to hold power, it would change such policies. But it does depend on democratic consent, so it won’t change its policies.

Nonetheless, discussions about such issues can be useful. I encouraged my students to begin blogging about the subject. I will be interested to see what they write.