By Samuel Wolde-Yohannes
Probity is often used as being synonymous to “having strong moral principles, integrity, good character, honesty, decency” [OED]. Conceived as such, it remains a bit general. Here I want to restrict its meaning to a social/civic virtue signifying the opposite of corruption, in the very same sense of lack of integrity, honesty and decency in public service. Before we move on, let me consider first why probity is without question the most essential of civic virtues.
Let us imagine a state, if indeed such a state can be called so, where all social transactions are conducted with dishonesty, bribing, favoritism, nepotism, etc… Where every member of the citizenry aspires to a position in public service through which he or she can exact monetary compensation, or favors of sorts, for services that are supposedly free. Such a state would be in essence a kleptocracy where the common powerless poor citizens would be at the mercy of all those who hold government positions and are intent at benefitting themselves and their families. In such a state, it would be impossible to have any kind of solidarity or transparency; and very likely, not even between those very same people who are in positions of power. De facto, such is the reality of a “failed state”, where not laws, but the more powerful individuals control all aspects of the communal life. In this kind of state, there cannot be any appeal to any higher impartial authority because all authority would depend on a whole network of corrupt officials. It would be no different in fact than expecting just or fair transactions from organized criminals.
Probity in the state is not only an essential virtue, but one without which a state cannot survive for long. If public servants of the state are constantly intent at exacting monetary or other favors from the powerless, then they might as well be members of an organized criminal organization engaged in extortion and racketeering. What makes it desirable to live in a state, once some form of security has been established, is that all forms of transactions, services, obligations are conducted with probity. The higher the level of probity the higher the quality of life in the state.
In most so called Third World countries, the type of public service where probity is expected to play a fundamental role is where it is absent the most. I am of course alluding to law enforcement and the judiciary. In many such countries, the police as well as judges of every rank are at the disposal of the highest bidder. In fact, paying one’s way through the so-called court system is not only accepted by the powerless mass, but is it expected by police and judges as perks of their occupations. One must indeed wonder in what way this kind of arrangement is different from one that is run by organized criminals. In a state where justice depends almost entirely on one’s wealth, connections and influence, it would be absurd to speak of justice or indeed of a state in the true sense of the word. Yet, this is the reality lived by billions of people around the world.
Where law enforcement and the court system are corrupt, it is inevitable that all public service bodies will also be corrupt; and consequently, the private sector, the very engine of wealth in the state, will be obligated to function corruptedly and corruptively. Its only instrument to conduct its own affairs not being the law or regulations on their own, it will make corruptive money or favors its currency for services it is legally entitled to receive (or perhaps not). Again, the ones to suffer the most under the tyranny of corruption are always the powerless people who are by far the largest constituent of the state. It is upon them that a corrupt system weigh the most, because they, unlike their well-heeled “fellow-citizens”, are practically at the mercy of every corrupt public official of every rank.
It is often said that corruption exists mainly because government employees, be they low ranking police officers, or high-placed bureaucrats, are paid badly. I contend that this is only very partially true. Moreover, even if it is given as a frequent explanation, it does not mean that it is the only true reason, or that it justifies their behavior. In underdeveloped and thoroughly corrupt countries, we still observe that the vast majority of teachers, physicians, nurses, daily laborers etc… are poorly paid. When these cannot make it with their earnings and wages, they never resort to charging people whatever they like, but only whatever is it agreed upon. We in fact see often teachers, whose salaries are consistently insufficient to support their families, supplement their incomes by tutoring children of wealthier classes, or using other skills they may possess for the same goal. The same can be said, of course, of the other members of other professions.
What we observe when we come to government employees in a corrupt state is that every government employee, no matter how insignificant his or her position, is intent at increasing one’s income by corruptive means. What prevents them from increasing their overall income by honest means, by working, for example, at other employments in the private sector in their free time, since they appear to have an abundance of it? The truth is that it is far too easy for them to exact bribe money or particular favors from the citizenry without paying any consequence. It is in such manner that every government institution designed to serve the public turns effectively into a criminal organization. Poverty or poor pay is not and cannot be taken not only as the sole reason, but no even as the most important reason for corruption. I believe that it begins and grows in the state to the extent it has in the underdeveloped world because a culture that encourages it is already there. What needs to be addressed is not its manifestation alone, but the culture that sustains it.
The source of corruption of government bureaucracies is first and foremost the kind of mentality that informs and governs it. In most underdeveloped nations, one often enters public service not to serve the public, but to gain access to a position of power that can be used to extract money or special favors. This is seen as an almost legitimate goal. One famous Amharic proverb states in fact, “Whomever does not exploit one’s position when promoted will regret it when being demoted”. The thought that one is placed in one’s government position to serve others has rarely entered the mind of bureaucrats of underdeveloped countries. They are so oblivious to the fundamental fact that government bureaucracies are entirely dependent on the revenue levied from the private sector, that they treat their positions as small fiefdoms, and their services more as favors than obligations.
Every new recruit of public service should be instructed from day one, that he or she is a salaried employee of the people, and not of any abstract organization; that his or her authority derives ultimately from the people, and is ministered in the name of the people. Educating not only future government workers, but the whole citizenry in the power and benefits of probity is not only fundamental to preserving a healthy and functional state, but is one that is at the core of the love one has for one’s country, and the pride of being part of it. Can one be truly proud if one’s country is constantly mentioned for its abysmal corruption and thievery? Probity may not by and of itself produce prosperity, but no prosperous nation exists without a higher level of probity in its public administration. By this, I do not mean that wealthier nations have more honest citizenry, but that their citizens understand that their quality of life owes much to the higher level of probity of their governments and public services. For this, they are willing to exact high penalty on those who are willing to abuse public trust.
Until the government engages itself in a thorough education of the bureaucracy in the very idea of public service, and puts in place severe penalties for corrupt conduct, we cannot expect now or ever to live in a state that deserves our complete allegiance, much less our patriotic sentiments. Imagine how citizens would feel if every government agency, department, etc… and every public servant in them performs his or her function not only with competence, but also with the highest degree of probity. Not only citizens would come to appreciate and cherish their public servants, but it would also attract wealthier nations to invest in their nations without fear or hesitation. However, as things stand today, what we observe instead is that even Ethiopians, who have become successful in every private and public sector abroad, are extremely reluctant to invest their hard earned money on their native land, because they not only fear encountering an uncooperative business environment, but a thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy that would discourage even the most patriotic of them.
Alongside of reforming and eliminating the most irrational and counterproductive laws in force today in the country, the most important work this government must do is not only to design corruption-proof procedures and mechanisms, but to thoroughly re-educate the citizenry in the value and benefits of the virtue of probity. This should start not when one enters civil service, but from the time one enters elementary school! Because, it is not a matter of changing one’s behavior alone, but one’s mentality and the mentality and culture of a whole nation.
Samuel Wolde-Yohannes (PhD) is Professor of Philosophy at Mount San Antonio College
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