So I’m working on writing a paper which I have to give at a conference at the end of the month, and thought I’d try out my arguments on you for practice. I would LOVE to know what anyone thinks, whether my arguments are clear, whether you have any questions or thoughts, whether you have any criticisms, whether the logic of my argument breaks down, etc. And apologies in advance for a way-longer-than-usual post.
My main arguments are: we need to distinguish between accusations of corruption and actual instances of corruption. And also, an accusation of corruption is not necessarily always or merely describing corruption. It also is a moral evaluation of a world economic system that is unjust, and a way of making meaningful sense out of this injustice. And finally, when these accusations were made to me, it was a way of making a moral claim on those rich countries in the system with the perceived power to help.
When I was in Nicaragua, I was told story after story of corrupt practices among government officials, from national leaders to local community representatives, among church and political party leaders, and among officials of cooperatives, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and other development projects.
I am not in a position to evaluate whether any of these stories are true or not. However, there have been a number of studies done, using questionable research methods, attempting to measure corruption, or at least rank countries according to the degree of corruption that exists within them today and to measure the change in this corruption over time. Transparency International, for example, does a “Corruption Barometer” every year, using survey data commissioned from Gallup to ask about people’s perceptions of the effectiveness of government in combating corruption, which sectors people perceive as being the most corrupt, and asking about the last bribe they paid. They then use this data to publish conclusions about “the public’s” perceptions of corruption. Similarly, the World Bank Institute published a report last year measuring and ranking, among other “governance indicators”, the degree of corruption in each country. These rankings were based on multiple surveys done by other agencies, practically all of which were constructed based on opinion surveys conducted among “business leaders” working in the countries in question. I have not found any agency which is successfully attempting to measure and compare across countries, in quantitative money terms, the amount of money lost to bribery or embezzlement. In other words, we have measures of perceptions of corruption, but not of actual instances of corruption. And these questions about perceptions of corruption do not allow for any cultural variation in understandings of what corruption might be. (However, more specific questioning about personal experiences of specific types of corruption may help with this, as in the Transparency International’s questions about the last bribe that you paid, its amount, etc.)
Despite these methodological issues, I should mention that Nicaragua gets mixed reviews in these surveys, despite some very high-profile corruption cases in recent years. (Nicaragua’s president from 1996-2002, Arnoldo Aleman, is serving a cushy home-detention jail sentence for embezzlement during his presidential term.) Among Central American countries, according to the World Bank study, Nicaragua scores third out of five. But Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America: if Nicaragua is compared with its fellow low-income countries across the globe, it scores better than average.
So my point is that although I was constantly hearing stories about both governmental and non-governmental corruption, Nicaragua does not stand out as a country with an unusual degree of corruption according to what few, questionable, international comparisons are available.
One thing I noticed when hearing the stories told to me in Nicaragua is that they did not always conform to my definition of corruption. My dictionaries, both English and Spanish, are vague on this point, merely saying that corruption is immoral behavior. (Corruption/corrupción is a cognate in English and Spanish and the dictionary definitions are almost identical.) For example, according to one of them, corrupting a woman could mean seducing her (of course, seducing a man, if you’re a woman, wouldn’t be corrupting him, since heterosexual sex is apparently only immoral for women. Grr.) However, I think we can say that in the current context, corruption is generally understood to be a technical term, meaning more than just immoral behavior, but also including something about abuse of power and personal gain. Therefore I was surprised to hear cases of what I would describe as simple incompetence or inefficiency, in which nobody benefited, and least of all those responsible, described as corruption.
For example: Nicaraguan political commentator Oscar-René Vargas, in a book on the topic of corruption in Nicaraguan society, defines corruption as “acts which, taking advantage of the authority of a public or judicial office, are used to gain illicit or improper earnings” (2000: 25 my approximate translation). However, in a different part of this same book, Vargas describes a two-stage project to improve the health system in Nicaragua, for which loans were taken out from the World Bank. This project involved a high degree of training for the employees involved. However, with the entrance of a new government, all the employees were fired. The project was started up again later, but new employees had to be located, and further loans had to be taken out for the trainings to be done all over again (Vargas 2000: 34). I would have interpreted this situation as very bad, yes… as evidence of incompetence and negligence, yes. But corruption? Nobody benefited from this situation. Another example from the same book is that Vargas lists “high salaries, paid in U.S. dollars, of government officials” as one of the aspects of corruption. I would describe the topic of Vargas’ book as “misuse of funds”, a topic which includes what I would call corruption. But he calls all these things corruption.
And this perspective is rather common, not only among the people I was talking to—both middle-class people in the city and poor people in the countryside—but also in, for example, newspapers.
As an anthropologist, my job is not to decide that people are wrong, that they misunderstand the meaning of a word, or to shrug off an inconsistency. Rather, I actively look for “slippages” of meaning like this. I listen to the context in which people speak. I ask is the inconsistency wide-spread? (yes it is) Is the inconsistency I’m perceiving due to a prejudice I have? (my understanding of the word is the same as Vargas’ explicit definition). So having decided that it’s not just one person, and it’s not just me, I ask about the meaning of situations like this.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve described Matagalpa—both the city and the department (province) of the same name—as a place which is surprisingly full of development projects and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), all with the stated goal of reducing poverty or things stemming from poverty, like infant mortality, women’s disadvantage, and environmental degradation, and generally serve the underserved. I am not the only one to make this observation, either. In the words of one small-scale farmer I talked to, “Nicaragua has been very very rich in organizations”.
Despite the vast number of these organizations, however, and despite their best stated intentions, most people remain poor. Now, I don’t want to say that NGOs do nothing positive. I heard stories of particular projects and particular relief which helped quite a lot. Some organizations built wells for communal use, filling a crucial need in a fairly dry zone, or dug latrines, or donated sheets of zinc for roofs, or food to families with very young children. There are places which provide prenatal care for free, and a place for pregnant women to stay when they are close to term, so that they can give birth in safe conditions (though this doesn’t help if the baby is born prematurely—see blog entry for Oct 22). After the devastating damage wrought in the area by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, there was food relief brought in which helped some families survive until the next harvest could be sown and harvested. I was especially touched by one particular story: a woman was raped, and with the help and encouragement of a women’s advocacy NGO, the women of the community banded together and denounced the rapist, driving him out of the area.
On the other hand… as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I conducted an economic life history survey with members of fifty randomly-chosen households out of the approximately 200 households in the rural community where I spent the most time. And although I haven’t yet run the numbers, a number of people I talked to have actually become poorer through interactions with NGOs—this mostly happened through being forced to sell land to pay off micro-loans made at exorbitant interest rates.
How can we understand the simultaneous existence of many programs with the objective of eliminating poverty, and persisting poverty? Anthropologist Lesley Gill writes about a city in Bolivia which was similarly inundated with NGOs, and which similarly wasn’t rising out of poverty (Gill 2000). She takes the perspective that the NGOs, although they have stated intentions of poverty reduction, are actually only functioning to keep the population under control and extract value from them (unpaid labor, interest from micro-loans, etc). These groups, in her view, are merely helping out with the neo-liberal project. (If anyone’s interested, I’ll talk about neo-liberalism here another day. Leave me a comment. The people who are going to be hearing me read this paper will know what I’m talking about.) And Gill clearly sees the people involved in the neo-liberal project as The Bad Guys. In addition, for her, the neo-liberals are clearly an alliance between middle- and upper-class Bolivians and foreign interests, especially the U.S. government. Therefore, Gill’s answer to the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph is that poverty persists despite these programs because the NGOs were reinforcing poverty by supporting neoliberalism. And that the people ultimately responsible for this situation were not Bolivian—the center of the neoliberal project is in the U.S..
I came to Nicaragua with ideas like these pretty firmly in my head. I understood the ways that global projects like neoliberalism function, and I expected that many people in Nicaragua would lay the blame for Nicaragua’s continuing poverty at the door of the United States. (After all, just 20 years ago it was no secret that the U.S. was sponsoring an armed insurgency attempting to bring down the Nicaraguan government.)
However, to my surprise, not only do my friends not blame the U.S. or neoliberal projects for ongoing poverty today, they also do not place ultimate blame on the U.S. for the Contra war. The war is seen as a civil war in which both sides got foreign sponsorship (Cuba and the USSR sponsored the Sandinistas), but for which Nicaraguans were ultimately responsible. Also, current ongoing poverty is not blamed on foreign intervention, fluctuating commodity markets, the declining relative value of agricultural products, or even the constraints placed on government programs by international lending bodies (like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc). Rather, according to most people I talked to—both middle class and poor—the principle reason for Nicaragua’s ongoing poverty is corruption among Nicaraguans themselves. The same man I quoted before as saying Nicaragua was very very rich in NGOs continued on, in the same conversation, to tell me “If these NGOs worked well, Nicaragua would not be as undeveloped as it is today. We Nicaraguans are very grateful for the aid we receive (from abroad), but all the aid goes to the friends of the functionaries. No aid comes for poor people” (my approximate translation). I heard this point of view many times—the aid and programs that come are good, people in donor countries are benevolent, but the embezzlement or misuse of the funds by government or NGO employees causes the failure of the objective of the programs. Blame is placed not on any foreign government or other entity, but on Nicaraguans themselves.
Placing the blame on Nicaraguans, rather than on foreign powers or the way the world economy is set up, is a way of making meaningful sense out of injustice. Concluding that poverty (or other bad things, for example, illness) (Farmer 1993) is the fault of a person with bad intentions who is acting malevolently is more meaningful for many people than blaming “The System” or vast impersonal mechanisms like the world economy. It also points the way to a resolution of the situation—if only these malevolent people could be caught and punished, there might be a solution to these desperate situations, whereas a solution to The System is much more remote—maybe this is especially the case in a place like Nicaragua where popular revolution has already been unsuccessfully attempted.
Now I am not trying to say that this is the point of view of all Nicaraguans. First of all, people who are very involved members of the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, the political party of Daniel Ortega) will generally talk freely about U.S. imperialism and “capitalismo salvaje”. However, these people were a small minority in the rural community where I worked, and also among the people I worked with in the city of Matagalpa. Second, in all cases, people were talking to me, a gringa from the United States, a country that donates a significant proportion of the foreign aid that comes to Nicaragua, and that this shaped what they said and what they didn’t say, despite the fact that I attempted to distance myself from the policies of the U.S. government at every appropriate opportunity. I fully expect that there were currents of anti-U.S. sentiment which I never became aware of.
I was surprised and flattered, at first, that people were willing to tell stories of corruption to me. I thought that if people were thinking of me as just “the gringa”, a representative of the U.S., people would have tried to cover up corruption as much as possible. After all, if people were trying to convince the U.S., via me, to help the poor, they would not want to portray Nicaragua as full of corruption. So I interpreted these stories as evidence of trust, and of people thinking of me as an individual, not as “the gringa”. But this interpretation was in error. I later came to understand that people were telling me stories of corruption exactly because they thought of me as a representative of a donor country, with a potential to communicate these stories back to people who make decisions about foreign aid. In fact, they were telling me these stories as a way of making a moral claim on me and on the rich country which they saw me as representing.
In the U.S., there is a strong cultural narrative that upward economic mobility is within the reach of everybody, no matter how poor they start off. Poverty is interpreted, therefore, as personal failure, and is highly stigmatized. Even more highly stigmatized is the asking for and receiving of charity, associated as it is with “dependency” (Fraser and Gordon 1994). However, I found that this stigma is not as marked in Nicaragua. Rather, the poor are often described as having a legitimate moral claim on the rich, and the rich have obligations to help the poor. While NGO employees and other members of the middle class often have an understanding that is similar to that common in the U.S.—that the poor are irresponsible and dependent—the poor people who spoke with me do not usually consider their neediness to be evidence of personal failure. For a rich person to enjoy his or her wealth without helping those in need is immoral. Therefore, describing one’s own poverty to someone from a rich country is a way of both making a moral critique of the inequality existing between rich and poor and making a claim on that person, and by extension that country.
People told these stories to me, in the absence of a more direct foreign government representative, because they hoped that the benevolent donor countries who want to do the right thing by helping the poor might be able to exert influence over the corrupt intermediaries. One person actually suggested to me that it would be nice if the U.S. could just send money directly to poor families like his, instead of channeling it through the NGOs.
In conclusion, I have argued that the accusations of corruption I heard in Nicaragua were meaningful ways in which people morally condemned their own poverty and the economic inequalities between Nicaragua and the United States, and staked moral claims on me and the country which I represented to them. I have no way of evaluating whether these accusations were all, or partly, also descriptively accurate. But Nicaragua does not stand out on comparative scales as a country with a particularly high scale of corruption for its income level, although apparently anxiety about corruption is higher than average as shown by people’s pessimism for the future. And it is noteworthy that as a part of this moral critique, the category of “corruption” is expanded to include things such as inefficiency or incompetence which do not fit a technical or legal definition of corruption but which are similarly morally condemnable. Therefore, great care should be taken when evaluating accusations of corruption—or the international corruption indices which are based on them.
So that’s it… again, I’d love to hear any commentary. Thanks!
Farmer, P. 1993. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fraser, N., and L. Gordon. 1994. A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State. Signs 19:309-336.
Gill, L. 2000. Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. New York: Columbia University Press.
Vargas, O.-R. 2000. Círculos del Infierno: Corrupción, Dinero y Poder. Managua: Foro Democrático y Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional de Nicaragua (CEREN).
 Actually, despite having to deal with an insurgency and economic strangulation, the Nicaraguan revolutionary government accomplished some meaningful successes, a few of which are still apparent today in some areas: the literacy campaign of 1980 and agrarian reform programs are the ones which are especially remembered in the rural community where I spent the most time.
 This was very hard on me at first, as I felt more and more pressure to respond to these claims. But after a while I found that when beginning a conversation with a new person, if I could find a way to immediately acknowledge the poverty of the community and express my own regrets about it, the person tended to exert less pressure on me personally.