Corruption is for everyone!

Maybe this is a good sign: For the first time in months, it’s been a slow news week in Bamako. President Dioncounda Traoré is still in Paris for medical treatment, junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has not made a public statement or appearance in ten days, and the only major political event that was supposed to happen recently — a march in support of Dioncounda Traoré and Mali’s internationally brokered transition process — was called off yesterday after religious leaders asked the organizers to postpone it. The investigation of last week’s attack on Dioncounda in his office has made some progress. The city has been calm.

In a previous post I wrote about how corruption in Mali is not limited to the nation’s politicians. By way of illustration I’d like to offer some excerpts from a humorous series of e-mails sent by Oumar, a Malian construction engineer, trained in the USSR who also spent several years working in New York City. His anecdotes, written in French leavened with bits of English, Russian, Bambara and Songhoi, reveal just how widespread the problem is: the rules are there, but nobody wants to follow them, and God forbid you should ever try to have them enforced. There’s only one rule people respect: Never say “No” to your relatives!

The following is my translation of Oumar’s words.

i worked as an inspector for the New York City School Construction Authority. In truth i never saw anything extraordinary that couldn’t be done in Mali. Maybe 70% of the architects and engineers were from East Bloc countries, India or China. Who would have imagined that 80% of the masons would be Pakistanis? What i got out of it was especially the sense of responsibility, respect for human life and working conditions, in a word workplace safety.

A construction site in Bamako
(NOT the one Oumar writes about here)

Naturally when i became a construction coordinator in Mali i wanted to bring some of these basic rules with me. And therein lies my problem today: starting at my work site, which employs close to 2000 workers daily, i asked all the contractors to supply hard hats, steel-toed boots and gloves, at least to those at risk. After a two-month battle i succeeded. Imagine my surprise the next day to find all the hard hats lying on the ground, supposedly because the workers felt too hot in them. A month later, all the hard hats, boots and gloves were stolen.

Nevertheless, i managed to get the contractors to use safety nets to protect workers against falls from the upper floors, and harnesses to attach to the scaffolding. Then the harnesses and nets were stolen.

Now we’re doing the wiring. Even with a 4-km fence around the work site, every day we catch two or three people stealing concrete and wire. They are family men, heads of households. To think that we’re building a public facility for all of Mali’s children!

You can hire a mason at 8 a.m., by 10 a.m. he’s gone because you’re paying him 4000 francs [US$8] per day; meanwhile someone called him with a 25000-franc, 6-day contract that pays 10000 francs in advance and he leaves without even telling you. On the 6th day he comes back through the same channel that recommended him to you in the first place, a relative of yours, or maybe your boss. That’s the problem.

What really hurts me is this: two weeks ago a colleague who’s in workplace safety tells me to check out his job site. Around noon i show up and find a 10-year-old child working on an upper floor without any protection. I grab him by the collar and go to kick him off the site, but at the gate i run into my friend who intervenes. “Are you crazy?” he asks me. “It’s already noon, let him at least finish the day.” “What if he falls off the building at 3:45?” i ask. “Let us take care of it, we’re in Mali, not America,” he says. i can hear the worker insult me as he climbs back up the stairs.

You want to hear more? Several months ago a cousin calls me up. After the usual greetings she asks if i can get a job for her little brother, a construction technician. So off we go, i entrust him to a contractor, and a month later the contractor tells me “Your nephew is really great.” He is working long hours, even weekends. The next day i congratulate my cousin and say Listen, on work sites, there’s everything, construction materials, drugs, women, especially theft, you do the math; as soon as you have a problem come see me. But i might as well be talking to a sack of concrete.

Ba-da-bing, one evening in Ramadan as i’m getting ready to break the fast my phone rings, it’s the site supervisor saying Kodjougou Kera [a bad thing happened], we just caught your cousin red-handed stealing wire, but don’t worry i’m going to handle everything. Two minutes later he calls back to say The boss just showed up and i can’t help you. i phone the boy’s sister to let her know, then switch my phone off.

Long story short, i have to pay 250 000 francs [US$500], the value of what he admitted to stealing, plus another 75000 francs to get his motorcycle back from some masons to whom he owed money, so his sister could rest easy.

If you think i am done with it, wait till you hear the end. So three days later, my phone rings again and it’s my cousin who says Let me put my husband on. He says Tell your contractor friend that maybe he’s head of a business, but i’m head of a brigade of gendarmes, and if he doesn’t take the boy back at work, the day one of his relatives winds up in my custody he’ll have to deal with me.

Is he saying this because he really thinks it, or to impress his wife?  alla houma yalam  i give up

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17 Responses to Corruption is for everyone!

  1. Charis says:

    Haha. I think Oumar has got his finger right on the pulse of things in Mali! Does Oumar write a blog or something like that? I’d like to keep up with him. If he doesn’t, could you please suggest to him to start; it would be very helpful for people to be able to understand les choses à la Malienne!

  2. Holly L. says:

    So agonizingly familiar! Several years ago we had the opportunity to talk to a South African man who was teaching Malians how to start and maintain successful businesses. One of his most important pieces of advice, (he told us), was counseling them that they must say “No” to their relatives. Good advice, but how could it be done given the culture here? We have never seen it actually done!

  3. jbw0123 says:

    What your friend Oumar describes is a story that repeats over and over: westerners (and western-trained) try to import western-style government, business and development into a country that is, what? tribal and village based? It doesn’t work. At least not so far. Prospects of it working don’t look good. I like that you describe Oumar’s stories as humorous. It’s a tragedy in western business terms, and in terms of what we westerners think of as basic health and safety, but it’s a triumph of spirit, and it is funny. What happens when a money-based culture tries to reshape a family-based culture? Wire theft. Thanks for the updates. I have no connection to Mali, except a daughter who visited December to March (left just before the coup), who got me hooked on following the drama.

  4. Anna N says:

    For those interested in learning more, consider reading Daniel Smith’s “A Culture of Corruption.” Smith’s research is based in Nigeria, but I think there are many similarities.

    On a related note, anyone know of any anti-corruption efforts that have been effective?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Dan was my doctoral adviser! His book is excellent. I hope other blog readers will respond with references to successful anti-corruption campaigns.

      • Jessica says:

        An experiment in Indonesia by Ben Olken shows that top-down government audits can reduce corruption in public works projects — and that increasing grassroots participation from the bottom-up has no effect on corruption. Here’s a link to the paper:

  5. Linda says:

    I left a post earlier about anti-corruption/bribery efforts in India. You can look it up on wikipedia (zero rupee notes) and also An interesting approach.

  6. Jennifer2838 says:

    The one solution Malians have found to the duty one is owed to family is to leave home! We live in the far west of Mali, Kayes, and many of the most successful businessmen we know come from Segou or Sikasso, way across country. They move there specifically to escape the demands of their families. Of course, often their nephews follow them (or are sent) but it’s nowhere near the number of people they would be obligated to employ if they stayed in their hometown. I imagine there are many successful Kayesiens in Segou & Sikasso!

    On a related topic, there is the difficulty of saying no to family when they ask for money. People deal with this by buying a piece of land and every time they save up some money, they invest in construction. Then they can legitimately say, I spent it on the new house, and can point to the structure as proof. Consequently everywhere you go in Mali you find houses in various stages of construction which take years to complete, but it’s a better investment than putting it in the bank.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Absolutely, Jennifer! One common strategy to manage burdensome demands from kin is to make one’s liquid assets “illiquid” — e.g., taking a wad of cash and turning it into a stack of concrete blocks on a building site. Another common strategy is migration; this topic comes up in the second chapter of my book. I think it goes a long way to explaining why successful entrepreneurs (especially shopkeepers and other retailers) in a given locale are so often “strangers,” people from elsewhere. This observation applies well beyond Africa.

  7. Mike says:

    Not an academic read, but I really enjoyed Michella Wrong’s “It’s our Turn to Eat”, which tells the story of John Githongo’s fight against corruption in Kenya.

    On another note, I was also told by a friend that a good reason to do some construction on a piece of land is to confirm your ownership of it. Apparently, w/out some building to serve as a benchmark, property lines have a tendency to move.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I know of many cases where even having built something on a given plot didn’t prevent others from encroaching on that plot! Unfortunately it’s all too common for land to be sold fraudulently to multiple buyers.

  8. Pingback: The cultural iceberg | Bridges from Bamako

  9. Pingback: Corruption is for everyone! (Part 2) | Bridges from Bamako

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