Corruption's quiet erosion of democracy

'And for me? Do you have a gift for me?" The Togolese soldier held my passport and was looking through it slowly and carefully.

"Gift, what do you mean?" I asked, feigning ignorance.

"You know, a little something for me before you leave" the soldier replied.

This was a familiar scene, one enacted many times over my two years of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa. Only this time it was different. This time, I was at the airport about to leave Togo for good. This was my last "shakedown," my last bribe request, and I didn't like it.

I paused and, choosing my words with great care, said: "I have served your country for two years and this is how you are sending me off?" The soldier paused. He looked again at the passport and then again at me. I could see his facial expression change. His coy grin disappeared. He handed over the passport, looked down at the ground, and without saying a word waved me on to the hangar where I waited for the plane. I heaved a sigh of relief. I had evaded the last shakedown.

Soldiers in Togo, and in much of West Africa, are erratic and unpredictable. My little performance could have invited more harassment, more delay, and possibly worse. But I was tired. I was frustrated. All the corruption I had witnessed in the past two years had finally gotten to me.

It's not as if I was shocked. As I approached the airport, preparing to leave the country whose people and culture had become so much a part of who I am, I knew that anything was possible. In fact, my cautionary tale about corruption in Africa is like telling a story about how Americans save too little. So what?

Even now, back in the United States, as I get reacquainted with the strange and wonderful gifts of freedom, the soldier's request starts to seem harmless. He is probably underpaid, used to asking for bribes, and merely needs a little pocket money. A little bribe never hurt anyone; it is merely the cost of doing business. Just hand over a few coins and bills, and you can be on your way. Business as usual.

And yet, as the foundation for democracy is being laid in Africa's former longest running dictatorship, and in so many other developing countries, the "business as usual" excuse just won't cut it anymore. All of us who care about Africa, who believe in the promise of freedom, can no longer ignore the corruption that World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz calls a "disease." It is a pernicious weed that threatens to undermine the otherwise valiant struggles for democracy sweeping the continent.

But what do you do about a problem so pervasive that it infects every sector of a society? I saw it in schools, in churches, in government. I saw local officials take their little cuts of health and education projects. I even saw corruption dilute the US government's best efforts to to deal with the agony of HIV/AIDS.

Corruption corrodes democratic reforms. It is a "regressive tax" that hurts the poor more than the rich and creates a system that is inherently undemocratic and unfair. It poisons the climate for foreign and domestic investment. And while poverty is certainly a root cause, we can no longer afford to accept it as an excuse. Corruption thrives in the absence of the rule of law. Lawlessness will always give way to a system in which one law prevails - the bribe.

So I laud the international community's efforts at bringing democratic reform to Africa. My country has never been more positively engaged in Africa. The peace corps and embassies around the world perform daily miracles, small and large. I plan to dedicate my life to this effort. But at the same time that we start thinking about free and fair elections, free markets, free speech, and other democratic ideals, all of us - international organizations, NGOs, the developed world, and the emerging democracies themselves - must resolve to end the "corruption tax" once and for all. Greed that enriches the corrupt leaves that much less to fight disease, hunger, and poverty.

Maybe some day I won't have to talk my way out of a final shakedown. Maybe the soldier will simply look over my passport and hand it back to me. Wouldn't that be something?

Jean-Marc Gorelick was Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa, from 2003 to 2005.

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