Sunday, April 23, 2006

moral and immoral economic activity

Hi Everyone,
The last few days have been mostly occupied with arrival logistics.
My original arrangements about renting a house fell through, but I´ve
found another one, in a nice safe part of town, and plan to move in in
the next few days. I´m really looking forward to being able to cook,
and brew nice, strong coffee.

Based on a rumor I´ve heard, I´ve been thinking a lot about
corruption. It comes up a lot in conversations around here when
people talk about why Nicaragua is poor. Some of course say that it
is because of economic sanctions and unfair trading practices by ¨the
First World¨ and by the US in particular. But others say the major,
most important reason is corruption on many levels... from large scale
theft, the reason why Arnoldo Aleman (most recent Nicaraguan
ex-president) is in jail, down to petty schemes, especially in
cooperatives, where poor people embezzle small amounts from even
poorer neighbors. One person, telling me about a small scheme,
exclaimed "this is the Third World!" conveying so much contempt and
disgust for the situation that I was shocked. He was looking at the
story as he thought I, someone from the "First World", must see it,
and in this imperfectly refracted image, the one situation reflected
badly not merely on the individuals involved, and not even merely on
Nicaragua, but on the entire Third World. (If anyone wants background
reading, check out W.E.B. DuBois´s writings on "double consciousness".
Or Simone DeBeauvoir´s "The Second Sex".)

Corruption elicits such strong emotional reactions. It´s interesting
to think of it in light of my interest in the relationship between
economic activity and moral codes. Because corruption is the
violation of moral codes about economic behavior. And like most types
of moral codes, these vary. What in one place is bribery in another
place is both customary and legal, like giving tips in restaurants.
And where do you draw the line between nepotism and, say, networking?
Is it moral to give a contract to a stranger, whom you may know
nothing about, when a family member needs the business AND you know
they´re trustworthy? Especially in a situation where a government is
weak, and you can´t necessarily trust that police or courts will
ultimately enforce a contract?

The Fair trade system is based on an image of a hyper-moral,
hyper-virtuous small farmer, who is fighting circumstances beyond his
or her control. In the context where the coffee is soldw this is
necessary, because if the circumstances aren´t totally out of the
control of the farmer, people tend to conclude that the farmer is
therefore to blame, and is not a worthy recipient of charity. But
this also is a really patronizing attitude--we´ll only help you if you
are an utter victim. It occurred to me that corruption, in these
circumstances, COULD be interpreted as a way of exerting agency
against these patronizing attitudes. But it´s not good to romanticize
it too much, I think. What I WOULD like to know is whether there is
something about hte system which sets groups up to fail because of
corruption.

As a final addendum and disclaimer, I would like everyone to know that
this is a general discussion only. I have contacts at many many
different cooperatives in Nicaragua, and am in a position to receive
rumors from many different directions.

1 comment:

Molly Hurley-Depret said...

Hey Carrie,
Really provocative thoughts here!
This discussion about corruption is definitely something to listen for--it must come up in conversation all the time. It seems to be giving you a broader context for thinking about morality & the economy.
Glad you made it there & have a good place to live! :-)