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Thursday, 2 May 2013

Reversing A Corrupt Culture

By Chola Mukanga
Vice President Guy Scott recently observed  that the key challenge we face in rooting out corruption is that it is cultural: “We are a country of thieves; people steal money meant for development….honest in public administration is needed in this country not where big people are eating and yet you poor people are suffering. We have to clean up this culture of thieving…".
It is important to realise that when we speak of corruption and general public theft we are talking about a cultural phenomenon. Politicians are often derided for suggesting that tackling corruption must start with each and every Zambian. What they usually mean is that corruption is a moral evil that can be prevented by anyone with a free will.
Everyone is free to refuse to steal public money or engage in bribery. That Zambians engage in these activities points to the moral bankruptcy of the nation as a whole. Public theft and bribery is therefore not fundamentally a political problem but a social one. We are a "country of thieves" and therefore we have the country we deserve.
That is not to say that politicians have not played a role in creating and maintaining this culture. Although public theft and bribery have always been with us it undoubtedly got worse over the two decades of MMD rule. The culture of unrestrained market fundamentalism, rampant emphasis on personal enrichment and high profile public theft by the political elite ushered in the so called “Sangwapo” culture. Public theft and bribery is now not just accepted it is assumed.
All of this matters a great deal. Bribery distorts allocation of national resources. It also leads to poor people paying twice for local services – first by taxes and then by bribes offered to access public services. And it goes without saying that public theft leads to economic leakage when money is siphoned abroad.
But by far the biggest cost of bribery and public theft is the system consequences. Our culture of thieving has eroded social trust and signals to everyone that we are a lawless society without values. This has only served to increase costs of enforcing law and order. It also makes our economic life less optimal than it would have been had social trust been preserved.
So how do we begin to reverse this culture? As the concern is cultural, the response also needs to aim at cultural remodelling. In other words my primary concern here is not merely the standard prescriptions of increasing detection, better prosecution, just punishment and public service reform. These are important and we have tackled them here before in more detail (see Reforming our Government). Rather my focus is more on fostering a structural shift in the culture itself.
Reversing this corrupt culture wont be easy but it is possible. The key is to recognise that change is top down. What the top signals matters a great deal. Therefore we need a new emphasis on the power of positive projection from those in high profile offices. In line with the “broken windows theory”, dishonest politicians can induce honest Zambians to try to become even more corrupt, leading to a downward spiral of ever-increasing lawlessness. This is the case even when in actuality only about 5 percent of politicians and civil servant may actually be corrupt.
If, on the other hand, the politicians projected an image that most of them are honest in many areas of life, Zambians may become more confident that they live in a law abiding society. This environment provides them with the motivation to follow others and to play according to the rules. A positive virtuous cycle could develop leading to less and less corruption.
There are many people who believe that the current government is not doing enough in this area. A politics of poverty  is now threatening to become rampant under the current government, and perhaps best epitomised with Munkombwe’s pride in the practice of “belly politics”. The rampant switching of political loyalties from the opposition to the ruling party in search of jobs and the political capture of ACC and other investigative wings are but a slice of an expanding matrix of a corrosive culture that is emblematic of a nation on life support as far a morality in governance is concerned.  .
At the heart of the corruption is a moral evil. Therefore the response to it must include a more authentic and active Church. A lot of time has been wasted debating the Christian nation declaration. Regardless of where people stand it is important to recognise that the Judeo-Christian worldview provides a solid foundation for modern freedoms and we cannot ignore this heritage as a critical ingredient for development.
I believe a vibrant society is built on strong markets; strong democracy; and, religious and cultural foundation. Religion in particular provides an important underpinning to both democracy and markets.  The reason is that both democracy and markets need to operate within a value system if the process is to be efficient and durable.
Democratic institutions alone cannot deliver a viable society because it needs good leaders with strong moral foundations. Market fundamentalism and neoliberalism can put food on your table, but it never gives you morals. Indeed more often than not, it undermines them through commodification of everything. The Church is vital as a producer and guide of moral good in our nation.  Where else can we turn?
Unfortunately many Church leaders have tended to perpetuate poverty and injustice rather than stand with the weak. Bishop Mambo has poignantly observed that “the Church has been compromised” and many of its servants “just want to drink coffee with the Republican President”. In many spheres of life, “the Church has made things worse by failing to stand for the majority of people suffering in society....”, while “the rich are getting filthy rich [and] the poor have become much poorer”.
These challenges will not be overcome by leaving the church as a bystander as some liberal adherents would have it. Rather we must see the Church as necessary in underpinning viable markets, democracy and delivering social justice. The problem in Zambia is not that the church is too loud, it is that it is not shouting clearly enough.
The task of the church is set forth in the biblical Great Commission, which involves not only baptising, but also discipling, as St Matthew records the word of Jesus, "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you". God has not given the sword to the church; its only weapon is the Bible, which speaks comprehensively to all aspects of human life.
This Great Commission does not restrict the church to preaching a simple gospel, the way to escape divine judgement. Rather, the preaching of the church presents to the world a way of life that transforms everything, including politics. Christians are not saved, of course, by political action. But they must bring their faith with them into their families, their workplaces, and their politics. When that happens we will begin to see change in our country.
With these two critical components - high level projection from politicians and civil servants and greater affirmation of Judeo-Christian values – we can begin to create a corrupt free culture. With this rock solid foundation broader initiatives targeted at better detection, effective prosecution and just punishment can be built. 

Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013

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