Facing up to (corporate) bribery

By Pascale Palmer
April 2, 2011

In 2002 I was detained by police at Kochi airport in Kerala. It seemed I had failed to get a vital stamp on my passport. Having missed my flight back to the UK to attend my auntie’s wedding, I was told I had to, the next day, report to the police station, which I duly did.

For 10 hours I waited for the chief of police as his deputy worked at a desk piled high with document files. Over the day this gentleman moved through waves of compassion (“Do you need water?” “You may go to get some lunch”), to harder-line tactics (“There is a fair chance of prison in this case” “They will not look kindly upon you”), while I started to feel incredibly uneasy about what on earth might happen to me.

At 6pm the chief of police arrived. He had my passport in his hand and kept putting it in his pocket and taking it out again. We talked through my circumstances; I tried out different tones and arguments – ignorance being my favoured plea, followed by tearful desire to see my auntie wed, and then tentative threats to need to speak to the UK embassy. At one point he put my passport in his desk drawer and said that with all the paper work the British had taught Indian officials to do, it would be very easy to lose a little document like a passport. For a couple of hours we jousted in this way and then he lost patience and I suddenly realised why. I was supposed, this whole time, to have been offering baksheesh: a bribe to oil the wheels of my situation. Leafing through my brain, I knew I had absolutely no social template to do this – how much, how broached, how delivered – and it was the embarrassment over this lack of knowledge that made me parry the thinly veiled and increasingly menacing demands of the next half hour.

And then as quickly as he had got angry, he became bored. He retrieved my passport, stamped it and told me to come and see him on my return from the UK. Then he added: “Bring with you some very nice things for me from England.”

Now, I’m not sure what he had in mind when he demanded this - and I was so relieved that I bolted out of the door with my passport - but looking back on it, I don’t think the box of Highland shortbread that I delivered to him two weeks later really cut the mustard...

Bribery is an incredibly grey area. In India baksheesh can mean anything from a tip to unforeseen “payments” that contractors demand once they know they are too deeply embedded in a project to be fired. The last time I was in DRCongo I got chatting to a Ugandan businessman who was trying to go through the government hierarchy to gain permission for his project. Every day I spoke to him he had had to take a different official out for lunch or dinner, and he explained that each meal was in the most expensive restaurant and that many members of the official’s family would turn up to dine. The worst instance was when he had organised to meet with one man, but paid for dinner for 30 people. But he seemed resigned to the fact that this was the way to open up the different levels of government administration he needed.

At a global corporation level, where very large sums of money can change hands between companies from abroad and in-country officials, bribery can have a pernicious effect on the citizens of a developing country. In poorer nations where governance at all levels can be weak, the traditional transnational corporate line has been of the ‘when in Rome’ order, often acting in ways that would never be acceptable or legal in the company’s country of origin. These multi-billion dollar corporations have incredible influence and power when up against country structures that do not have the checks and balances or strong rule of law to guarantee probity. In feeding opaque payments into such systems to progress a company’s own agenda, millions of dollars are lost from budgets that could be improving citizen’s lives, and the wheels within wheels of corruption are perpetuated. This opacity also makes the monitoring of government spending and action on behalf of its citizens much more difficult to follow, and disempowers the population who will find it hard to hold their officials to account.

This week, UK Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke published a guidance document to accompany the UK Bribery Act. This report lays out in some detail what is and is not to be included under the heading of ‘bribery’ and the ways in which a company can defend itself against bribery allegations. Now that the guidance has been made public, the Act itself – passed last April with cross-party support – can finally be implemented on 1 July 2011.

Over the past months, the business lobby has most certainly had the ear of Clarke – airing its concerns over whether hospitality could be viewed as bribery under the new Act, and managing to get implementation put on ice. What really gets my goat here is that, although there is an important discussion to be had over where corporate entertainment ends and full scale bribery starts, this is surely a mere sidebar to the kind of overseas bribery that means some unscrupulous companies stride through the developing world with impunity. Most of the time I would agree that the devil is in the detail, but here, on the topic of corporate bribery, I’d hazard the devil isn’t chuckling about the canapés in the VIP tent at Le Mans: he’s got plenty enough to do out in the resource-rich-governance-weak nations where many TNCs set out their stalls.

There are flaws in the Bribery Act and some continue to complain that the guidance is less specific than they had hoped on the hospitality issue, others feel that the demands placed on smaller companies will outweigh the financial benefits of the contracts gained. And most importantly there is an issue over which companies can be held to account under this new UK legislation and whether the Government will commit sufficient funds to ensuring the law can be enforced according to the spirit of the Act. But over the coming months and years we will see how all these concerns pan out, and above all, come July, we will have a reasonably robust law in place that helps the UK live up to its responsibility to fight corruption at home and abroad.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Advocacy Media Officer for CAFOD (www.cafod.org.uk).

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