Career & Education

Big corruption, little corruption all equal Big corruption, little corruption all equal

Christopher Burns

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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It starts with early childhood education and sensitisation programmes. However, if we are to dent corruption and lay the foundation for a fairer and more peaceful society, crucial bureaucratic reforms are also necessary. Moreover, as my friend, Junior, correctly counselled, because the greed of men is not only permanent, insatiable and inherent, but also a possible manifestation of corrupt consciences, there are benefits to reap from reinforcing good moral and ethical values anchored on biblical teachings about honesty and other relatable religious virtues. The approach must be multi-sectoral to include police, preacher, paupers, priest, teachers, farmers, parents, pickney, beggar, and t'ief.Many years ago, one of my alma maters invited alumni to participate in several interactive sessions with grades one through six students. The school's principal gave wide latitude to present topics of our choosing, albeit from a rather extensive list. After much dithering over which topic to present, I eventually chose something along the lines of “Common courtesies and fairness…”, and for good reasons.

Although many years have elapsed, memories of that day remain fresh. The day's activities were as remarkable as the revelations that came with responses during the question and answer sessions. Shortly after I arrived and the children engaged what appeared to be rural obeisance, a little girl, with tears streaming down her cheeks, ran up to me and whispered, rather nervously, “Sir, mi laas mi lunch money…”

“How much did you lose?” I asked the little girl, while pulling out my wallet.

“Mi laas a five-dollar bill, Sir…”

She watched me flip through my wallet. I handed her a ten-dollar bill.

“Thanks, Sir, but is only five dollars mi laas…”

I told her to keep the extra, but to promise that she would tell her parents about the circumstances under which she ended up with the extra money. She nodded in approval and ran off.

Methought it wise to use that encounter to survey students' responses to the following question: “Students, if by chance you were to find a five-dollar bill, or geometry set, or a textbook, a box of crayons, or an unused exercise book on the school compound, what would you do?” The responses were frightening and rigidly dichotomous, as opposed to being similar and gender neutral. The survey showed girls, by an overwhelming margin, were more likely than boys to report the sudden fortune to a teacher.

However, there was a grade-three male student whose response and subsequent antics I will never forget, because his behaviour and attitude struck me as oddly calculating. He exhibited traits of a “forced-ripe, little-big” man. He looked older than the other grade-three students. With snapping fingers and facial expressions that made it hard not to acknowledge him, I pointed to him, “Alright, you go ahead; tell us what you would do…” He crossed his arms, then suddenly released them to use an index finger to scratch the side of his cheek as he leaned against the wall. He unrepentantly said, “Sir, I wouldn't tell anybody sey mi find dem! I would o' change up the $5, mark up the geometry set, tear out the name outa di reading book, write mi name pon di exercise book, and keep the crayon dem.”

Before I could offer compassionate correction or dissuade his dishonest intent, he turned to another male student who found his answer unacceptable, then retorted, “Wha' yuh a talk 'bout; yuh a' idiot, tell har what, yuh mad?”

Predictably, his remarks went over seemingly well with a significant cohort of the male students. As for me, I was completely unawed. Still, nothing in that encounter should suggest that dishonesty, unethical behaviour or immorality is gender-specific. The moral of the story is to underscore the need for Government, particularly the Ministry of Education, to consider the teaching ethics in schools, beginning at the early childhood level. If the ministry is already teaching ethics at the early childhood through high school levels, then I must applaud its visionary and proactive thinking. Hopefully, the existing syllabi is extrapolated to include an extra-curricular component that awards class credits to students who extend the teaching and practice of ethics and social responsibility as a community-based activity. As such, they would interact with and engage their peers, parents and others in ethics-based discussions, skits and behaviour modification exercises. In other words, nothing short of a national “train-the-trainer” programme focusing on ethics and anti-corruption behaviour will suffice.

Policymakers and advisors to the ministry should move beyond thinking that their knowledge and political experience were handed down from Mount Sinai. Instead of teaching our most impressionable citizens useless fables and nursery rhymes we should be teaching them the virtues of honesty and proper ethical conduct.

The Church has been remarkable in this area, but its efforts have mostly been doctrinal and never usually include lessons on good citizenship, social and civic responsibility. Even at the tender age of three or four we should begin to inculcate in our children acts of generosity and honestly. I do not know what became of that aforementioned boy, but I hope he became an uplifting citizen.

We make all kinds of mistakes along the way and for several reasons; therefore, getting it right from the start — nurturing and early influence — could very well be the medicine the doctor ordered to tame corruption. This is certainly one way to break the inter-generational cycle of our Anansy-culture — social strata notwithstanding. We must reject the legacy of ginnalship and bandoolooism we have come to accept as normal and necessary for survival. We also must stop behaving as if rich, light-skinned people do not engage in corruption. We have got to stop it! No amount of World Bank or Transparency International statistics on corruption will reduce its impact. Yes, amplification of these statistics could dissuade investors and cause further erosion to our economic recovery, but not seriously reduce incidents of corruption.

The best way to do this is to acknowledge that, despite our creative genius, we have a fundamental problem. A problem anchored in greed and “badmindedness”, which causes too many of us to swindle, maim, kill, and destroy others, oftentimes senior citizens and the most venerable. We cannot continue to be purely descriptive in our approach to reducing corruption, given a near cultural predisposition to engage in a little “runnings” here and there.

After leaving school, I inherited a 1987 German-Ford Capri sedan car. I called it the Black Maria. Not long after, the flywheel got bad, so I asked my mom to buy the part from a dealership in Gainesville, Florida. She did and then shipped it to me in Jamaica. She also bought and shipped a mini-refrigerator. The items arrived at the wharf in Kingston about a month or two of her shipping them. Upon receiving notice that the items had arrived, I went to the wharf to clear them. I passed a security guard at the gate who gave me a form and instructed that I get it stamped before leaving the premises. As I entered the building, a man, who looked to be in his mid-to-late 30s, greeted me, quite politely. He seemed officious, but pleasant, and credible enough to engage. He sheepishly asked me for the “slips” [bill of lading, invoice, and the form the guard had given me earlier on]. He then instructed me to, “Just sign here so, up there, and over here…give me $350 and wait over there…” Realizing I was reading the forms, he nudged me, “Speed does it man, speed does it; time is money…Boss man, you never read the form dem before?” When I told him that the security guard had just given me one of the forms, he hissed and declared, “F…ing idiot.”

After another five minutes elapsed, he was back at me again. “Yuteman, yuh want to clear the things or not?” I told him I would just go inside. He got enraged. “Well, go in deh, galang, mek dem charge you thousand brush, gwaan man…” I went inside and joined the shortest queue. After about 10 minutes or so, I was at the agent's window. I promptly presented all three pieces of paper. She asked for my ID. She took the papers to a man who resembled a porter, then came back to me. She spent about another five minutes banging the calculator while turning the pages of an everlastingly big book, then said, “You owe $14,050.” I almost wet myself.

“My mother paid a little under US$250 for the flywheel and less than US$60 for the fridge, and you charging me so much?” I protested and complained that a guy outside said he would clear them for about $350 and I decided to come in here instead. I took the invoice-like piece of paper from her and advised, “I will have to come back, because I do not have that amount of money on me…”

My intentions was to go back to the man on the outside. However, I decided to review the piece of paper she had given me, only to discover that she had charged me for crankshaft — a substantially more expensive car part. I immediately alerted her of the error. That was when all hell broke loose. She fussed that I'd implied she did not know the difference between a crankshaft and a flywheel. She was so indignant; she refused to deal with me any further. Eventually, a supervisor arrived. To my utter surprise, it was the same man I encountered outside who offered to 'clear' the items for $350! This time, he was even more polished and reasonable. Quite apologetically, he said, “Mr Burns, she did make a mistake, you only need to pay $142.” I paid, collected my items, and left.

Without a doubt, stories about the wharf abound. However, the experience underscores the importance of government reforms to achieve continuous improvements in customer service and ease of doing business. We would only be fooling ourselves, were we to believe that burdensome bureaucracy, unnecessary forms and requirements, disjointed process flows; inefficiency, poor customer service and slow approval processes and justice system do not contribute to corruption. Nothing seems easy in Jamaica — not even 'unimportant things' that require minimal efforts. Everything is like pulling teeth. That, together with our soon-come mentality, and inability to distinguish between service and servitude, all contribute to corruption and the furtherance of the “grease my palm” or “eat a food” culture.

Changing the mindset requires full acknowledgement that the entire bureaucracy was cast on the premise of distrust, with just as much emphasis on suppressing upward mobility and oppressing the poor and working class of this country. In fact, our lopsided economic system (born of the extractive plantation economic model) makes it almost impossible for some to weaken the stranglehold of poverty. We cannot seriously reduce corruption without reviewing and reforming centuries-old stratification models that to this day disproportionately discriminate against and make life a living hell for those with limited economic means and darker skin complexion. Any patch batty pants farmer or dry-head dressmaker form Mosquito Hole should be accorded the same courtesies and seriousness of presence as a straight-haired, well-attired millionaire. Inequality of opportunity, unfair treatment, slow justice system, and burdensome processes are root causes of corruption. It ought not to surprise anyone that frustration, perception of unfairness, social unawareness, deprivation, and greed are seminal causal factors for some people to engage in corrupt behaviours.

The sheer weight of inequity — perceived or real — and disincentives to normal conduct give succour to institutionalised distrust among the people. If we are to be true to ourselves, then we cannot deny the symbiotic relationship between financial and social oppression, hardship and distrust of government. It is a fixable conundrum, although some would have us believe otherwise, but therein lies some of the root causes of corruption and unethical behaviour. When, for instance, a poor prospective landholder makes numerous trips to the land agency; fills out all the necessary forms; secures multiple character references; and then must follow behind his political representative, like a pet dog, just to secure a recommendation for benefits to which he is justly entitled, go tell that man or woman anything about corruption.

Tell that man or woman about corruption after he observes that Mr Uptown only made a single phone call to officialdom for them to move “heaven and earth” for him. Simply put, it is understandable, though unacceptable, when the poor prospective landholder chooses corrupt practices as a way of circumventing the undue hardship and certain rejection he is bound to experience by following the legal route. Reducing corruption should become an occupation for all of us, but we cannot achieve much without fixing the system simultaneously with the mindset and thinking.




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