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Corruption and Culture II: Beating the Drum

Posted By Grim • [July 23, 2010]

We had a Blogger's Roundtable with Army Captain Heather Coyne, the NGO and International Organization liaison for NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan.  A reservist, CPT Coyne in her civilian job works for the US Institute of Peace.  

CPT Coyne spoke especially on the subject of her work with womens' organizations that want to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan, especially in terms of women having access to government services such as police.  The importance of women police, for example:  

If those women police don't exist, there's a block like I talked about with the getting -- even getting to the station. There's a block on women being able to get access to justice.... [T]here are some severe challenges for women to join the police, and I'm not just talking about their own concern about, you know, the reputation of the police or the family's resistance, but even some women -- we've heard reports -- it's just terrible -- that women have gone to police stations saying that they wanted to become police and ended up getting raped because the police didn't know what to do with them, and it's so -- such a challenge to the traditional society.

With respect to CPT Coyne for her important and extraordinary work, that understanding is only half right. It is certainly right to want to ensure that women can be police officers in Afghanistan.  However, the existence of female police is neither the challenge to the traditional culture she believes, nor is it a guarantee of women's rights. Remember that the Taliban regime also had female police officers.  Readers are warned that the link is to the video of an execution of a burqa-clad woman by such female police officers.

I continue to believe that we may be trying to import our own ideas about corruption into the country, as we discussed at the last roundtable.  Here is what I wrote about that one:

A lot of this local corruption may be a primitive tax system, whereby the police have to pay what we are reading as "bribes" to higher authorities for their jobs; they collect these bribes in fines of various sorts on the backs of the people. That reads like serious corruption to us, but it happens also to be exactly the system that King Richard the Lionheart used: sheriffs paid the crown for their position, and were expected to extract their sustenance from fines gained by enforcing the law.

That kind of system can certainly be abused, as witness King John (of the Robin Hood myth, and who provoked the Baron's revolt that led to the Magna Carta): he did the same thing, but harder. The difference between the system working well, and the system working badly, is not the fact of this form of proto-taxation. It's the question of whether the proto-tax is being applied within the accepted limits of custom and tradition. If it is, you're a good king. If not, you're a tyrant, and are likely to provoke a revolt.

Now consider how that compares to CPT Coyne's remarks. Here are two sets, the first spontaneous and the second after I asked her about the question:
What's really interesting is that you would think that the people in those sessions would focus in and complain about corruption, which, as we all know, is the big problem here. But they don't. What they're saying in these sessions is things like we want the police to slow down.... They know that these things aren't morally right, but there's a certain practicality that a policeman who's not getting paid enough -- or who wasn't back in the old days before we increased the pay -- or civil servants who aren't getting paid enough to really take care of their families, it's almost like an extra tax on people to give a little extra to the civil servants.

What they want is for that not to be excessive. And what they want is for them to not be rude and heavy handed when they're asking for it. And that's what we hear.

I repeat that I greatly respect those who are there, on the ground, doing this difficult work.  I'd just like to offer you another way of looking at this.  If you listen to what they're saying, what they mean by "corruption" isn't what you mean by "corruption."  They're not talking about the law, but about payments that are 'almost like a tax,' and that they are 'pragmatic' about, as long as they are 'not excessive,' 'rude,' or 'heavy-handed.'  

The danger here is that many people you may view as corrupt, they may view as just leaders.  Others that appear to us to be no different they may view as wicked tyrants.  The one kind will have great popular legitimacy, and we hurt ourselves by working against them or trying to replace them.  The other kind we need to be able to work against.  Knowing which we are dealing with requires care in understanding the cultural context, so we can hear the actual concern being voiced by the people.


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