The social norms of bribery
9 May 2010 § 5 Comments
Aid Watch had a good post a while back about why “failed state” is a failed concept, which sums to the recognition that current use of the phrase A) offers no coherent definition of state failure and B) offers no analytical insight into the political trajectories of states considered failed. Unsurprisingly, this contributes to a lot of confused thought about the Congo, which often gets termed something like “the world’s largest failed state.” The sloppiest reporting & analysis end up portraying the country as an economic free-for-all, with chaos envisioned as the inevitable consequence of the absence of Western standards of legitimate taxation & property rights, among other things. (Texas in Africa recently did a great take-down of Jeffrey Gettleman on a variant of this mode of thought, with specific regard to the war in eastern Congo.)
This is a very two-dimensional way of looking at a place as fascinatingly complex as the DRC. Case in point: the social norms that have developed around the endemic corruption of the Kinshasa traffic police. Bribe-seeking is technically illegal & unregulated behavior, and can look rather chaotic to the first-time observer. If you’re wealthy enough to be traveling by car in downtown Kin, you may rest assured that the roulage will be looking for any pretext to stop you and ask for payment of an imagined fine. (In the situation leading up to the photo above, a friend had parked quite legally in a designated parking spot outside my apartment – after which we were surrounded by police & escorted to the station on claims that we were blocking the road.) Interestingly, though, the key word here is pretext. I never saw any interaction between the police & drivers that did not involve some sort of legalistic claim to the driver’s money, even if both parties knew that the accusation was false. By contrast, white foreigners probably look just as wealthy walking down the street as they do when in cars, but the same police officer who stopped us morning after morning whilst we were driving to work scrupulously ignored me when I walked past him on my way to lunch. Imagined moving violations are presumably easier to justify than imagined walking violations, and the group norm specified that bribery in this particular location had to have a legal pretext. (This is likely not representative of all corrupt Congolese police all the time – but it was always the case in my personal experiences with them.)
All of which is to say that it’s a blinding misconception to think that the opposite of a strong state is chaos. Order (organic if not judicial) can be found everywhere, if you take the time to look.