The Ethics of Bribery

Starting enterprises in developing nations is a risky business.  Not only do you have to deal with crime, political instability, dishonesty, poverty, lack of infrastructure, incompetence and dependency, you have to tackle what in my mind is the greatest challenge of all: corruption.  Time and again Kenyans tell me that without corruption their country would be one of the wealthiest, most stable in Africa.  If people here could develop a culture of honesty, hard-work and integrity, and if the government would stand aside instead of pillaging the economy, this country would be a very different place today.

Transparency International recently ranked Kenya 154th out of 182 countries worldwide in terms of worst corruption levels.  With that kind of record, running into a corrupt official wanting some chai (a bribe) is bound to happen sooner rather than later.  Knowing your position before you launch is vital to the development of your business and conservation of your integrity, so my business partners and I began discussing the matter with each other.  I won’t tell you our entire conversation, but from my perspective, the fundamental disagreement boiled down to how to change a broken system.  On one side, there is the argument that on principle, we should never pay a bribe.  After all, bribery is spoken against in the Bible and paying one would compromise the moral foundations of our company.  In this view, fighting the system one corrupt official at a time, despite great potential economic loss, is the way to transform Kenya.  While I like this argument, it’s problematic because you will be fighting corruption for a long, long time and even defining bribery itself can be difficult.  There is a lot of grey area between bribery and payment for services rendered that can only be tackled on a situational basis.  If I need a work permit quickly, do I pay someone $30 or go through the system and wait 6 months, working illegally in the mean time?  Of course we don’t want to support corruption, but to some extent knowing, and playing by the rules of the game is the only way to stay in it long-term.

On the other hand, there is the argument that we’re never going to change Kenya by fighting bribery upfront.  These are Kenyan citizens working in a corrupt system and they will win every single time.  The way to make a difference then, is to create an excellent company where employees learn the values of hard work, honesty, and integrity.  We pay our workers fair wages so they don’t have to resort to extortion or bribery to feed their families.  Within our sphere of influence, we do everything right to develop ethical leaders that will change the next generation of Kenya.  Of course we would never willingly pay a bribe, but paying it could potentially be the lesser of two evils.  I know this argument sounds hypocritical because we would be teaching people about integrity while paying someone else off.  But in the end, value decisions have to be made either way and choosing the more ethical option is our ultimate task.

All this is great, but remains rather theoretical for my liking.  So, just as I was thinking about these issues, a policeman stops our the car and starts banging on the hood with his baton thingy.  He tells me that my driver is under arrest for talking on his phone, jumps in our car, and wants us to go the nearest police station.  Christmas season in Nairobi means cops like to have some extra cash for the holidays.  Knowing that, they’ll “arrest” you for the smallest infraction in order to extract some quick cash.  Instead of going to court and spending all day processing documents, my Kenyan friends paid the $5 and were on our way.  It was a bribe, I won’t deny it.  I didn’t like the fact that he was paying it, but the potential loss of time was too great to refuse.  I can’t say it’s right but it’s what he chose and I didn’t complain.

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5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Bribery

  1. an age old discussion… i agree there are no easy answers. in Cameroun Wycliffe’s policy is that their members aren’t allowed to pay bribes, and we adhere to that. however, what we do is carry “gifts” around this time of year… calendars, food, etc that the police may want that would do instead of money… there are some fun ways to get creative with that. i don’t think it solves the ethical problem, but it may solve the problem if the cops are just looking for a way to buy beer and get drunk and beat there kids… but then again that’s another assumption that people make about the reason a police man is asking for a bribe… and that helps with small bribes but not the big ones… i wonder if there are other successful Christian businessmen in Africa who you could talk to this issue about since you guys are all just getting started 🙂 or maybe there are articles/case studies you can read… why reinvent the wheel? unless there is no wheel… good luck! i don’t envy you these tough decisions!!!

  2. It’s a battle we can’t win here in Kenya or in Africa anywhere. I worry about this kind of thing when I think about setting up my organisation in a few years time. As a Christian, I don’t like the idea, but there doesn’t seem to be many options when in situations like the one you mentioned…

  3. Thanks for the comments guys, it’s good to think about these things even if there doesn’t appear to be an immediate solution. Karl, what do you do out here? Are you in Kenya right now? I would love to hear about what you’re doing and the organization you would like to set up here.

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