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Roundtable: Corruption and Culture

We spoke with Major General Mike Ward about efforts to develop the Afghan police.  (Transcript here.)  It was an interesting conversation, because it points at one of the trickiest aspects for Western powers operating in a traditional culture:  our tendency to read organic, family- or tribe-based authorities as corruption.

An example, to clarify what I mean:  Once upon a time in Iraq, we had a microgrant program aimed at a very poor area south of Baghdad.  Just as the microgrants were paid out to start up several small businesses, word came that a local chieftain -- not really a blood sheikh, but the ranking member of the tribe in the area -- had simply collected all the money from the people.  

This was read as corruption, and our rule-of-law people went down there and forced him to return the money for its intended purpose.  Yet it proved to be the case that he had collected the money for a good reason.  The area was poor in large part because there were a number of tribal feuds in the area, and the money he had taken was to pay off a reconciliation claim (diyya).  That would have resolved one of the feuds, which he felt was a more pressing matter than starting businesses that were likely to be burned down if the feud continued.

Our system of law, rules and accounting found all of this completely opaque.  His authority to "tax" was read as thievery; the tribal customs, or laws, governing reconciliation were not part of the book-laws of Iraq.  We applied our rules to their culture, inflexibly, because that's what we do:  we apply written law.  The oral, tribal culture doesn't fit into our line diagrams.

I'm afraid I pressed general Ward very closely on this issue.  I meant no disrespect to him or his companions, who are working very hard on these issues.  However, it's a mistake we can little afford to make in Afghanistan, where there is even more oral and customary "law" at work, and even less written law.

A useful thought exercise, as you read the transcript:  if a lot of the traditional "police" corruption is, instead, the traditional operation of the culture, then should we not expect the most "corrupt" to be the ones whose recognized authority is greatest?  Are they not in their position because they are tied to tribal or family leadership, in other words?  Shouldn't we expect those complaining most loudly about the "corruption" to be people who have no authority in the traditional culture, and who are hoping to leverage us as a means to advancing themselves?  Which ones make better partners for building stability:  those who have recognized, traditional authority locally, or those whose authority comes only from us?

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.

Judging whether you are seeing proto-taxation or actual corruption, in that case, requires knowing what the traditional and customary limits actually are.  It's the sort of thing that will not be obvious to outsiders:  it will be opaque to us, especially if our own notions are informed by book-written laws that are not relevant to the local culture.

This is even more of a concern given that these cultures view policing as less honorable work than soldiering, as we discussed in the call:  in Afghanistan as in Iraq, the best young men want to be soldiers, and those who want to be police are a little bit out for themselves.

But read the transcript, and let's discuss it.