Would You Recognize Corruption If You Perceived It?
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
A conversation the other night reminded me of a meeting I had in Baku…
In light of recent admissions by formerly admired athletes, we were having this conversation about defining honesty and moral courage. One thing led to another and, not wanting to get too heavy into this subject, I recounted the story of a meeting I had had with a pretty high ranking government official some time ago in Baku.
It had a twist I hadn’t expected to find there.
The conversation had come about because of an interview I had given where I was asked about corruption, specifically if there was corruption in Azerbaijan. Being as diplomatic as I could, while still recognizing the reason we were there was to bring market reforms, I referred to the then recently released Transparency International Corruption Perception Index which indicated that, yes, there was a strong perception of the c-word.
The Minister had a driver fetch me to his office to talk about that interview. He began by asking why I “always say bad things” in the papers. I responded by saying that I didn’t only say unflattering things, but the positive bits had been edited out mostly- just like anywhere else, scandal sells papers. And this definitely seemed to have touched a nerve.
So in what I thought was a keen grasp of the perception situation, he asked me to indulge him a moment. “If I want to mail a letter in the United States, what will it cost me?” I answered that I thought it was about 34¢ at that time. “How long will it take to deliver it?” “Three or four days, I suppose, depending on where it’s going.” He continued,” And if I want it to go faster, if I want better service? Can I not go to FedEx and pay more for overnight delivery?” I replied that was certainly a good option. At that point, the Minister, looking very satisfied, replied, “So what is the difference? Here if you want something to happen today, you pay more money. It is same thing, no?”
I had to smile. In the perception game, he had a point. Is it corruption if everyone’s doing it? If it’s an open secret that you pay for what you get? At what point does a practice go from legit to extortion or vice versa?
We had a long conversation that day, a kind of friendly debate. He knew he was wrong from a rule of law perspective. And that really was the one that mattered, after all. I heard that a few years after I left, he ended up out of office and a new scandal had taken this one’s place. Something about bribery and a lot of foreign currency being where it didn’t belong.
The lesson I had always shared with my students in the University was this, “No matter what the Truth is, pay attention to what Truth is perceived to be, for people will always act on what they perceive to be the Truth.”
Apparently athletes and government officials perceive things in similar ways. It is same thing, no?
 In the Corruption Perceptions Index 2001 “The CPI also registers very high levels of perceived corruption in the countries in transition, in particular the former Soviet Union. Scores of 3.0 or less were recorded in Romania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Peter Eigen noted: “The leaders of the countries of the former Soviet Union must do far more to establish the rule of law and transparency in government. This is crucial to their economic progress, and to the development of an open society.”