Dealing with Curruption when Traveling Across Countries



Can You slip me a tenner?


Have you ever taken part in a corrupt deal of some kind? Don’t worry, I’m not about to report you, it is just that I’m trying to highlight how complex and interesting this thing can be. In an ideal world, perhaps, there are things that are morally right, and there are things that are morally wrong, and there is nothing in between. It is all black and white. In that world we exclusively do the right things, and none of us have therefore taken part in anything that can be called corrupt. But I suspect that in the real world, and depending of course on our beliefs, there tends to be the right thing, the wrong thing, and a great big sort of grey area in between that everyone can argue and agonise about.

I have to say that I’ve taken part in various different forms of corruption, but before you report me, I hasten to say they were all, well, small scale. Let me give an example. A couple of years back I drove an ambulance from the UK to Mongolia, as part of a slightly mad annual charity event called the Mongol Rally. Getting there involved crossing lots of borders and dealing with border guards and paperwork. I was regularly solicited for, shall we call them “informal, um, facility payments”? At one border, the guard kept inspecting my ambulance, shaking his head, and indicating (we did not speak the same language) that its documents were not in order (I knew that they were). Eventually he took me back into his office, made me fill out a few forms, shook his head again, and wrote the number ‘100’ on a pad of paper. I said, via sign language, ‘100 what?’. The answer came back with a smile: “Euros or dollars”. I briefly considered taking a principled stand (which I thought meant I would have to turn back) and then (forgive me, dear readers) took a pencil and crossed out one of the zeroes. Would that do?  Apparently it would do nicely. I paid 10 dollars and was waved through with a smile.

At another border, an enterprising policeman made me turn on the ambulance’s siren and flashing lights  (which I know I should have disconnected prior to departure). He then told me that what I had just done (at his request!) was illegal (unauthorised foreigner in unauthorised vehicle using unauthorised flashing blue lights etc), for which I would have to pay a fine. Immediately in fact. In cash, and no receipt would be given.  I think it was 1,000 dollars, but by now I was a bit of a veteran at the game, producing a wallet which contained my ‘last’.. you guessed it - ten dollars. That in the end turned out to be acceptable too, and I was allowed to proceed. I did meet some other rally participants who took a more principled stand. A group of students in one car had a letter on European Union headed notepaper addressed “to whom it may concern” informing them that the EU recommends harsh sanctions against anyone who solicits or gives bribes. When this was produced on the border of a country I shan’t mention, but which has a reputation for being a bit of gangster state, the border guards took their car at gunpoint. It was never recovered. They had to double back, and avoid that country entirely. I gave them a lift in the ambulance, which is how they eventually got to Ulan Baatar.

In case you find all this too depressing, I should also say that on the same trip I met hundreds of kind, polite, and considerate people who were amazingly helpful to foreigners such as myself, and took time to give me directions, help me change tyres, and in one case fix my busted shock absorbers entirely free of charge. I was also involved in a traffic accident in Russia, and I have to say that the police who dealt with that late night mess could not have been fairer or more professional. It takes all sorts.

What does all this prove? Nothing, except that corruption is hard to define and often quite insidious. There is a rather grey area we all have to deal with. Small acts of corruption, such as the ones I have been involved in, can be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ supporting a wider corrupt culture. All of which leads me to the anti-corruption lobby group Transparency International (TI), which has just published the 2013 Corruptions Perceptions Index.  TI defines corruption as “the abuse of power for personal gain”. The index scores and ranks countries according to perceived levels of corruption on a scale from 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) through to 100 (perceived to be very clean). In this latest report Denmark and New Zealand are tied in top place, scoring 91. Other very clean countries are said to include Finland, Sweden, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada.  Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia are the worst performers, scoring just 8 points each. The UK was ranked 14th with a score of 76. The United States was ranked 19th with a score of 73. Each country’s score is based on what are described as “a combination of surveys and assessments of corruption, collected by a variety of reputable institutions”. To some extent this is a subjective measure.

“It is time to stop those who get away with acts of corruption. The legal loopholes and lack of political will in government facilitates both domestic and cross-border corruption, and call for our intensified efforts to combat the impunity of the corrupt” says Transparency’s chair, Huguette Labelle. The 2013 report is online and you can type in the name of a country and see their ranking and corruption score. I’ve just done that for all the countries I travelled across, and the results seem broadly in line with my first hand experiences!

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Written by Andrew Thompson
Travel writer - Currency Today

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