Sunday, November 15, 2009


Most people know that when you go to do work in a "developing" country, things operate differently. Projects move slower, priorities are different, and you have to navigate a new and foreign environment. Unfortunately corruption is another common feature of doing work in such a region, and it costs a lot. The price comes in two ways: from the corruption itself, and when legitimate enterprises try to adapt in response.

I can give one example of the first: traffic stops. Being a mzungu with a foreign car in Goma means I'm a constant target for the traffic cops. So when they stop me, I have to obey. I talk to them, I negotiate, I call their bluff when they say I have to go to the police station. All this takes time, and it saps my ability to get my work done while I'm here.

Secondly, probably even worse than the corruption itself is the drastic measures that have to be taken to prevent it. For example, in the last few months I have raised enough money to have a large water filter constructed so that women can drink rainwater collected from the roof. The money was raised in the US, and then wired to HEAL Africa. But that's just the beginning - actually withdrawing the money from the internal account is a huge process, requiring special authorization and proof that each dollar has (or will be) properly spent. The delays in dealing with this have been painful, especially since I'm only here in Goma for a few weeks to get the project done.

A second (more humorous) example involves the police again. A few days ago, I was driving with a 500 liter (125 gallon) water tank on top of my truck. Having been stopped once by the police looking for a bribe, I had to travel along all sorts of back roads to get the filter to its destination. The back roads included traversing through a live soccer match! My car slowly ambled across the pitch with the large tank on top - it was quite a sight I'm sure for the spectators. That trip, funny as it was, took much longer than just driving on the main road. But when the alternative is an encounter with corruption, you do what you can to get by.


  1. Hi Alex,
    I work on the BBC World Service's daily discussion programme called World Have Your Say.
    Today we're doing our programme about corruption. I came across your blog and wondered if you'd like to share your experience. If so, please email me a number we can reach you on to

  2. You raise the question of corruption in the third world but it is alive and kicking in the first world too.

    Corruption in Spain is my favourite topic - so much so I have written a crime thriller, Deadly Secrets, based on bribery, corruption, money laundering and murder in southern Spain! See where you'll get more info on corruption in Spain.

    Anyway, on the back of my knowledge and recent developments in Spain I have also recently written two articles about corruption in Spain - Why is Spain one of the most corrupt developed countries in the world? which was published in The Olive Press as well as on some online blogs about Spain ( and Corruption is drowning Spain (earlier this month)

    If you read my article on Spanish culture and character ( Why are Spaniards Spaniards?) you will see that I (and Professor Andrew Kakabadse of Cranfield University) conclude that if there is a big gap between the haves and have nots and you have a non inclusive, or stakeholder, to use Prof Kakabadse's terminology, society then this creates certain "problems" - one of which is corruption. At the same time, countries such as Spain or Ireland, who have received huge subsidies (from the EU) and hence have had very strong economic growth are now reverting to their previous "status" of being almost third world countries (see for Spain's economic prospects).

    Why? Because the money the vast sums they have been receiving from the EU for many years has effectively been treated as "aid" and they have done nothing to invest in long term social infrastructure and make society more "balanced". In fact, as far as I can see (and I have lived in Spain for 8 years and done business here for 25) the only meaningful long term infrastructure Spain has invested EU monies in is its road and rail network (very important). Spain effectively has been living on EU aid and not taking the necessary steps to be able to wean itself off it - hence the total mess the country is in now. Its only saving grace is that it is in the EU!
    Robert Tenison