Insidious Corruption Destroys Trust

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Government officials and business operators have extracted millions from government coffers in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations. This money could have gone into roads, education and health care, but instead it went into private wallets of the privileged and well-connected.

According to a recent report, the re-election of reform-minded President Joyce Banda is in peril because she has been willing to clean up government corruption. Sixty-eight people, some officials in her own government, have been arrested in a scandal known as Cashgate.

Often it is argued that this money circulates through the economy, as if graft is merely another way of keeping an economy running, but it isn’t. A hospital administrator reports that medicines and medical supplies are in dangerously short supply.  She tells of a young woman who died for lack of supplies to administer a blood transfusion after childbirth.

In fact, corruption is not harmless, it’s lethal when it drains funds for health and welfare, education and infrastructure. It undercuts effective, efficient governance. It adds to the cost of doing business. 

Corruption is insidious. It works its way through a society and becomes so seamless that it can seem to be the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. Too often, it’s accepted as the way things work.

It tarnishes the institutions of society, institutions that are designed to enhance quality of life–education, health, government, religion. When the leaders of these institutions accept corruption as inevitable, they work against their own mission of uplifting and empowering people, and they contribute to the on-going injustice and oppression that keeps people down.

Transparency International says “corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.”

Recently, traveling from Blantyre to Lilongwe our vehicle was stopped at an intersection by a smiling, friendly uniformed policeman who asked, “Do you have a small gift for me?” He was smooth as butter, his smile bright and toothy.

We resisted giving him money. After a few minutes, he agreed to another gift, a book. A prayerbook.

Our response was inadequate. It still pricks at my conscience. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been shaken down in Africa. I have more than 30 years of experience with it.

Perhaps that’s why I’m impatient and frustrated. Corruption seems intransigent. And corruption keeps people in poverty. It breeds the diseases of poverty and illiteracy.

The one institution I can influence to avoid corruption is the church. I’ve seen how the church working in partnership with other organizations committed to transparency and ethical behavior can make a difference.

It’s not easy. I know it’s a difficult challenge to confront corruption, sometimes it’s dangerous, especially when corruption has become embedded in the fabric of the society.

But so long as corruption is tolerated, Africa will struggle and people will die, and that should weigh heavily on every person who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus.

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