September 01, 2010

Cricket and Corruption II

Not so long ago, I had a conversation with a Pakistani businessman about the prospects for economic growth. The conversation turned to import and export. Now, as someone who has personally had to clear Ms Henley-on-Thames "minimised" 250+kg of shipping through Islamabad airport customs, I have seen a little of the dark dealings it takes to get things done in a place where corruption is part of the background noise.

The businessman, who regularly ships finished products to the UK, was saying that importing and exporting in Pakistan was pretty straight forward. I was saying that it wasn't as there is no clarity in the regulations. We argued back and forth about this until we came to a point we agreed on - well, nearly. The businessman said the customs' payments were reasonable and not prohibitive to business. I said the bribe I had to pay (through some pretty dodgy cunning manoeuvrings) hadn't been as bad as I feared. We both repeated our positions not really thinking about what the other said until it clicked. We both looked at each other for a few seconds and it became clear that we were talking about different ends of the same customs official's twirly moustache.

"Um, you know. The things you have to do here to build your business, your life or whatever... They warp your mentality."

I didn't think it was worth pressing home the point that the businessman had come to consider corruption "normal".

I've seen lots of corruption; bucket loads; all over the place. I still remember feeling slightly thrilled when as an 18-year old landing in Cairo to start an Arabic course, I had to pay my first bribe to get my bags waved away by the narcotics police - not that I had anything illegal in my bags, but only because they were obviously taking about 30 minutes to check each bag in a crowded and sweltering queue in the hope that the better off would self select themselves and offer to pay up to move things along.

Corruption isn't corruption in Pakistan, it's life. As some commentators have already pointed out, it's not a huge surprise that a phenomenon that permeates society is also present in sport.

But just as corruption isn't just corruption, cricket isn't just cricket in Pakistan. It's a metaphor for how the country views itself at its best. The team can be chaotic, unruly, but from the depths of defeat and despair it can tap into some sort of unseen fount of resolve and produce dazzling displays of skill and determination. Equally, from a position of unassailable confidence, it can collapse in less time than it takes to place a bet at your local bookies. At the same time, cricket is the one thing the entire country regardless of religious affiliation, ethnic background or social class can rally around.

Which is what makes the cricket betting scandal so painful for Pakistanis. If cricket is Pakistan, it makes sense that there's an element of corruption involved. But of course, Pakistanis hope beyond the expectations of logic that there isn't. Cricket is Pakistan at its best, and its worst.

As an editorial in Pakistan's most popular newspaper Jang stated the other day:

"The whole nation is ashamed...Corruption has marred the country... and this is going on and on unabated. This latest cricket corruption case shows again the need for revising the whole system."

In the same way the floods have shown up Pakistan's governance problems then the cricket scandal shows up corruption. I don't want to contribute to the sense of beating Pakistan when it's down, but I do feel that responsibly highlighting problems is the first step to solving them. If the cricket fiasco encourages Pakistanis to take matters into their own hands and do something, it will, ultimately, have a positive impact.

Corruption is some times described as a cancer - and I think that's accurate. In a decade of reporting from the Muslim world, across countries and regions, I noticed the all-encompassing presence of corruption. Once it's in your system, it's near impossible to eradicate. Often, the only way to get rid of it, will wreak havoc on the wider body politic, and then there's still no guarantee it's going to stay away.

Corruption is not something to be opposed merely on the grounds of principle or morality. In practical terms it damages a state's ability to enact policy by providing people with ways around laws. It allows the unscrupulous to make enough money to influence the decision making power of the state. It allows those with connections to increase their gains and widen further the gap between rich and poor. There are many other reasons, but perhaps the most damaging in the current climate is the effect it has of alienating the disenfranchised and propelling them to turn to non-state actors to provide security, legal redress or relief.  It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that ending corruption is a recurrent theme with extremists.

I remember sitting in Cairo's Journalist Union on the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq with Arab journalist friends. It's hard to imagine now, but despite all our worries about civilian deaths and US intentions towards Iraqi oil, we all took it for granted that the US would establish a competent government in Iraq. At the time, whether you agreed with US policies in the region or not, you didn't doubt its capacity to carry out its aims. The one good thing we thought the US would be able to do in Iraq was to remove corruption as a ubiquitous aspect of life in Arab and Muslim countries. In the end, the US not only failed to stamp out corruption but by its actions encouraged it. It didn't take long before US officials in Iraq were accused of taking part in it.

What usually happens when Pakistan or another Muslim country is in the limelight for deceitful shenanigans is that some Western commenters somewhere will imply (or flat out state) that the problem is cultural. This puts people on the defensive. They object to being portrayed as morally bankrupt down to the last man, woman and child. And I would agree. In a system where getting your kids into school requires bribes and not grades and even obtaining your driving licence is in essence a financial transaction, I am constantly surprised and humbled when I meet stringently honest people like Jahangir Tareen who, for example, pay their taxes even when this requires more effort than just flying under the radar and risks further unwarranted, predatory attention from greedy officials.

But the response of those who are labelled as "culturally corrupt" is often to say "There is even more corruption in the West. They are just better at hiding it." This isn't entirely true. Yes, there is corruption in the West. For example, in the UK not so long ago, Tony Blair while prime minister, ordered the Serious Fraud Office on national security grounds to stop a corruption investigation into an arms deal between a British defence firm and Saudi Arabia. The result was outrage that the executive arm of government had pulled rank over the judicial branch for economic reasons. However, this sort of thing doesn't impact the average person's life several times a day. But what it does do is degrade the checks and balances that keep the cancer out of the system.

And that's what it's about; the system. It's not about culture or DNA, it's about having properly functioning, fair systems that give people faith that even if they are poor, they will be treated like everyone else and have the same (or similar) opportunities to better their lot in life.