Friday, May 20, 2016

To Bribe or Not to Bribe?

Katie walked into the office of the Social Welfare Council (SWC) and greeted the clerk at the desk: “Namaste, Gopalji!”. “Namaste, Katieji,” he replied. It was Katie’s fifth visit in as many days. She had been getting to know some of the workers at the office and for the most part they seemed friendly enough. But why was it so difficult to get her Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) registered? She was puzzled and getting more frustrated as the days passed.

Katie had arrived in this South Asian country two months ago, after a long break back home. She had spent two years in the country before and it was during this time that she became aware of the problem of sex trafficking and the need for safe homes for the girls that get caught up in this sordid trade. Once home in the UK she had visited dozens of churches to share her vision and was now back in the country to establish an NGO to care for such girls. There were a number of bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome before the charity could become a reality: permission would need to be sought from the Home Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, and the Social Welfare Council, the government body that regulates charities. Getting the charity registered with the SWC then was the first, and major official task for Katie if she would see her vision become a reality.

As soon as she arrived she had visited the office and registered her intention to set up an NGO. She had filled in multiple forms and presented numerous policy documents covering all aspects of the running of the NGO. A ‘Letter of No Objection’ had been obtained from her embassy. Clearance had been obtained from the local police. Fees had been paid. As far as she knew all the paperwork was now complete. All she needed now was official registration. And for that the Director’s signature was required.

But day after day Katie was told by Mr Adhikari, the section head, that the Director was not available: one day he was in a meeting; the next day he was not well; the day after that an unspecified problem had arisen. Each day she was told to “Come back tomorrow”. Katie was getting demoralized. “Would my dream ever become a reality?” she mused to herself. There were girls even now in a vulnerable position who could do with a safe house to stay in. Without registration Katie was powerless to act.

Now, after another fruitless day hanging around the offices, Katie went to get advice from the director of another NGO. “Have you tried offering a gift?” asked Bob, an old hand at dealing with officials.

“No, certainly not. Bribery is unethical,” replied Katie.

“Oh, it is not bribery,” went on Bob. “You see, you have to understand, government employees are paid a pittance for their work. Everybody knows that they have to supplement their income through gifts otherwise they can’t manage. So it is not a bribe, it is an accepted and normal transaction for the work they are doing.”

“But they should do the work without ‘gifts’ and besides, if you start giving ‘gifts’ for one thing it will never end,” objected Katie.

“You are not asking them to do anything illegal or unjust,” said Bob. “The gift is an ‘acceleration fee’ to encourage them to do their duty in a more timely and efficient manner.”

“But there will be no receipt, so how do I account for that in my book-keeping?” went on Katie. “And besides, my supporters would be appalled at their sacrificial donations being used to feather some bureaucrat’s bed.”

“Well, that is just how it goes Katie. You better get used to it,” Bob replied. “Everyone does it. It is the only way to get things done. You must figure in that 10% of your finances will go missing in one way or another. If you don’t play the game, you will never get registered and all those girls will have no place to go.”

Katie left Bob’s place feeling deflated. Should she ‘go with the flow’ or try to buck the system? If she did start passing out ‘gifts’ for such services would she not just become part of the problem? But if she didn’t, her dream might be dead in the water – the girls would continue to be in a vulnerable position. She felt that it was all so unjust but wondered whether such a small injustice, if indeed it was that and not just a neutral aspect of the culture that she had to get used to, should be accepted in order to avoid an even greater injustice should the NGO not be registered and the girls remain at risk. What should she do?