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The Hour of the Thief: On Corruption, Transparency, and Silver Linings

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A portrait of former Mozambique President Armando Guebuza hanging in the community radio station in Namapa, Mozambique (Photo: Alek Shybut)

I’m holding the katana in my hand, and I can’t quite remember how I got to this point. I remember why I bought the giant knife in the first place, but the movements leading up to it were not entirely my own. It’s easy enough to blame the culture, even easier to blame the one who tried to enter my house, but my reaction is entirely my own, and it is within my reaction that I find myself lost, detached from the original motivations for arriving here.

I walk around my community with a new sense of foreignness. With each set of eyes that I find myself locked, I consider the possibility that this is the person who attempted to intrude into my private life, quickly gather my things to sell on the road, maybe try to subdue me through violence (although I’m not entirely sure the person knew I was home). The faces that were starting to become familiar are drastically distorted into potential threats. I feel nervous, uncomfortable, unable to breath. I can’t remember how I got here.

My work in the community is affected, as I start to fear the outside. Instead of wanting to spend my days walking through the community, exchanging gestures with my new family, I find myself locked indoors, cradled under my mosquito net, attempting to catch up on sleep after a week of lost sleep due to the incident. I wonder if this is something I’ll be able to come back from. I wonder if this will happen again. I fear both, and I find no answers.

When I do eventually sleep, I wake often. The night that it happened, I woke around 3:30 a.m. to the sound of metal on metal, screwdriver on lock, knife on grate, my imagination races. The veranda of my house shares a window with my bedroom, and my bed is tucked closely to said window, allowing me to peer outside toward my front door and beyond. The sound causes me to rise in bed and slowly assess the environment. My contacts, sleeping soundly in their case, and glasses, tucked somewhere in my backpack, are not with me, and the entire room is blurred, making it difficult to see. I realize that the sound is coming from my front door’s grate, and I instinctively yell Leave! in Portuguese. A blurred figure slowly walks away from my front door, and I’m left breathless in the silence, heart pounding.

A few minutes later, I rise to my feet, carefully enter my kitchen area, open the door to the veranda, and check the front grate. The lock that had been firmly in place before I lay down to rest is now several feet away in the dirt, popped open, broken. I scan the front yard and find nobody remaining behind. The silence of the middle of the night, with the exception of the occasional cat meowing or insect calling, is both comforting and terrifying. I throw on a different lock, slam the door, take additional precautions in closing it, and return to bed.

The next day, the katana is resting in my hands. With its wooden handle and long, metal blade, it seems sturdy enough but probably only good for a couple uses. Along one face of the blade are three, printed lines for writing information. I examine the blade and don’t understand what one would write on the printed lines: This weapon belongs to Alek Shybut. Please don’t steal it. The word weapon bounces around inside my head, unfamiliar and foreign among my normal thoughts of volunteerism, health, peace.

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My first home in Mozambique consisted of three small rooms: one for the kitchen, one for my host family to sleep in, and the other for a volunteer (newly built, as I was their first volunteer). The town of Namaacha always felt safe to me, whether it was because I am a male or I was naïve to the dangers of maintaining American habits in a country rebounding from war, loss, corruption. My family helped me feel safe. They were warm, loving, enough to distract me from the risks of being a foreigner in a foreign place.

Each night when we would go to sleep, my host mother would pile large, yellow water containers in front of the main door. When asked about it, she simply replied that “there are thieves everywhere.” I wasn’t completely oblivious to the fact that thieves existed in Mozambique, my ideas were just temporarily blurred by observing the warm spirit of the neighborhood in which I lived: families offering assistance to a growing child, waving and yelling of my name as I enter the community. This is the Mozambique for which I signed up. This is the Mozambique that is presented to us. Although, the signs of thievery were in front of me the whole time. There’s no one to blame but the one who refuses to see.

Late in our training during the first two months of service, a female trainee in my group was returning home in the dark of the night by herself. She was using a cell phone and a stranger passed her in the darkness. He said good evening before turning around, striking her in the face, and swiping the phone from her possession before disappearing in the shadows. The following day, we comforted our friend and heard from our supervisors about the incident. The thieves who were hidden before had unveiled their true nature.

However, sometimes the thieves do not need the darkness; they simply need the law.

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Speak with any volunteer who has served in Mozambique about public transportation in the country, and you’ll surely hear about the damaged infrastructure of the roads, poor condition of bridges, and dangerous state of the vans and busses that carry passengers to their destination. It’s common knowledge that transportation in Mozambique is treacherous. Volunteers in the past have lost their lives trusting those who work in it.

However, the second thing you’re likely to hear about is the way in which the drivers of these vans and busses are treated by those who have sworn to protect the laws of the country: police officers. Drivers have learned to carry large currency in case they are stopped by one of many control officers that are placed on the national highway running north and south in Mozambique. Upon stopping, the officers explain to the driver that they are hungry, thirsty, or in need of a fee for a random infraction. The driver pays, because what else can the driver do, the police officer dismisses the driver, and life continues.

One day I was traveling by bus to visit a friend in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. Stopped at one of these control areas, a member of the police entered the bus, started asking Mozambicans and foreigners for documentation (luckily we’re told to carry our passports or certified copies with us at all times), and searched for those who did not have any. A man sitting close to me across the aisle was the unfortunate one of the day to not have proper documentation. He was told to stand from his seat and follow the officer off the bus, but the man refused. He sat in place, asked the police officer repeatedly for the reason, and attempted to evade the situation. Eventually the police officer grabbed the man by the arm, pulled him from his seat kicking and arguing, and was hauled off the bus.

During this altercation, I looked around the bus to see reactions of those with whom I was traveling. Eyes were firmly locked in an unknown space outside the window. Even the man sitting next to the frustrated passenger refused to acknowledge the happening. Much as malaria or other common illnesses have become everyday life for the people of Mozambique, putting up with and simply surviving the wrath of corruption has as well. The law is strong, and while the people are stronger, the will to push against it has yet to build.

While corruption flourishes on the ground, it’s high above with those who make the laws that corruption really finds its home.

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Transparency International, a non-profit, non-governmental organization against corruption, works “to stop corruption and promote transparency, accountability and integrity at all levels and across all sectors of society” (Mission statement). With the vision of a “world in which government, political, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption,” the organization provides statistical data about a country’s corruption and offers the information free of charge in order to hold accountable those who aren’t.

Using their Corruption Perceptions Index, TI measures levels of perceived corruption around the world. The CPI, a composite index, ranks countries based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. Scores range from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) with additional data provided about a country’s control of corruption (perceptions of the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain), open budget index (availability in each country of eight key budget documents), and judicial independence (perceived extent in which the judiciary of a country is independent from the influences of members of government, citizens, or firms).

Let’s start by looking at the least corrupt country in the world (according to TI): Denmark (population: 5.5 million, GDP: $309.87 billion, life expectancy: 78.6 years)

DenmarkFlag

Corruption Percentage Index Score (2014): 92/100 (Rank: 1/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): 2.373760444 (Percentile rank: 100%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Judicial Independence Score (2011-2012): 6.6/7 (Rank: 2/142 countries)

Scores range from 1 (heavily influenced) to 7 (entirely independent).

 

Additionally, using information from the United Nations, TI includes statistics on the Human Development Index rank and score for each country. Denmark is ranked very high and ranks sixteenth in the world out of 187 countries on the index.

Let’s continue by taking a look at one of the most corrupt countries in the world (according to TI): North Korea (population: 24.3 million, life expectancy: 68.43 years)

NorthKorea

Corruption Perceptions Index Score (2014): 8/100 (Rank: 174/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): -1.340157209 (Percentile rank: 3%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Using the statistics above to put into context the amount of corruption that may or may not be existent in Mozambique (population: 23.4 million, GDP: $9.59 billion, life expectancy: 49.28 years), let’s take a look at the findings according to TI.

flag_MOZ

Corruption Perceptions Index Score (2014): 31/100 (Rank: 119/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): -0.395968044 (Percentile rank: 43%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Judicial Independence Score (2011-2012): 2.7/7 (Rank: 114/142 countries)

Scores range from 1 (heavily influenced) to 7 (entirely independent).

 

Human Development Index Score (2011): 0.322 (Low) (Rank: 184/187 countries)

The index is classified into four quartiles: very high, high, medium, and low.

While Mozambique lands somewhere in the middle, the information is alarming. Falling closer to the more corrupt line, it’s clear that government and personal interest influence not only the judicial systems within the country but also lead to lower life expectancy and a lower HDI score for its people. However, there is some good news.

Using their Global Corruption Barometer, Transparency International collected surveys from everyday people who have confronted corruption around the world. Out of the 1,000 people who completed the survey (2013), 32% said that corruption has increased a lot in the past two years, 27% said it’s increased a little, 24% said it’s stayed the same, and 15% said it has decreased a little.

When asked to what extent the participants thought corruption was a problem in the public sector in Mozambique, 45% said it is a serious problem, 29% said it’s a problem, 17% said it’s a slight problem, and only 4% said it’s not a problem at all.

When asked to what extent is the government run by a few big entities acting in their own best interests, 29% of participants said entirely, 31% said to a large extent, 29% said somewhat, and 10% said limited extent.

When asked how effective the people though their government’s actions were in the fight against corruption, 18% said very ineffective, 30% said their ineffective, 31% said they are neither effective nor ineffective, 19% said they are effective, and 2% said they are very effective.

The following are percentages of respondents who felt that the institutions listed below were corrupt/extremely corrupt in Mozambique:

Political parties: 58%

 

Parliament/Legislature: 49%

 

Business: 45%

 

Education systems: 79%

 

Judiciary: 69%

 

Medical and health services: 70%

 

Police: 84%

 

Public officials and civil servants: 74%

 

While the argument is clear that the people believe that many systems and areas of Mozambique are severely corrupt, there is a bright spot to be found in this data, and it’s one that has many implications for Peace Corps volunteers as well as those who are looking to change the system from within.

The respondents were asked to what extent they agree that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption: 16% said they strongly agree, 48% said they agree, 25% disagreed, and 12% strongly disagreed. There is hope for fueling change from those who believe corruption can be changed through strong programs, whistleblowing activities, and organizations working to strengthen those systems seen as corrupt.

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Just for fun, let’s take a look at the United States of America (population: 309.1 million, GDP: $14.59 trillion, life expectancy: 78.09 years) and see where we land as far as corruption and transparency (according to TI).

flag_USA

Corruption Perceptions Index Score (2014): 74/100 (Rank: 17/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): 1.232890271 (Percentile rank: 86%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Judicial Independence Score (2011-2012): 4.9/7 (Rank: 36/142 countries)

Scores range from 1 (heavily influenced) to 7 (entirely independent).

 

Human Development Index Score (2011): 0.910 (Very High) (Rank: 4/187 countries)

The index is classified into four quartiles: very high, high, medium, and low.

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A few weeks later, and I have a guard who watches over my house at night thanks to my landlord who kindly hired him for me. I’m sleeping well, and the incident has since been forgotten from my instinctual memory. No longer do I look at those around me in fear, but I am finding once again the reasons for choosing to be here (because at the end of the day, we have to remember that we chose to be here.) Our lives directed us here for a reason, and I refuse to give up on the possibility of witnessing great (or minor) change in Mozambique.

The katana is tucked safely away in a storage area in my house, only to be used to cut tall grass, open coconuts, or attack the real dangers of the community: giant spiders. While I don’t think I would ever fully be able to attack another human being with a weapon, being in that place of mind was one I hope I do not have to experience again.

It’s easy to lose sight of who is to blame when it comes to thieves and their need to steal. It’s easy to blame them for their decisions in life, but we must have the strength and knowledge to look beyond our own anger and recognize the fractures and breaks within an already fragile infrastructure. The people of Mozambique clearly recognize the issues, and together we can help them to strengthen their own systems, strengthen their lives.

The day after the incident happened, I was talking to a friend who works at the small store across from my house. When he heard that the thief showed up to my house around 3:30 a.m., he raised his head and said, “Awww, the hour of the thief.” This stuck in my head and continues to bounce around when I start to feel myself slipping into the safety of isolation. Just as thieves are affected by the umbrella of a broken system, so, too, are we affected by the umbrella of negative thoughts that steal our days and disregard our hopes.

Not today, thief. Not today.

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