Nepali Times
State Of The State
Absolute poverty corrupts absolutely


The value of money depends on who you are and where you live. For the World Bank, a dollar a day is a measure of poverty. Everyone surviving on less than that falls into a category below the 'poverty line'. Aid agencies and officials may complain about the rising cost of living in Kathmandu, but they don't think twice about paying more than a dollar for a multinational cola.

A section officer in HMG earns $100 a month. Since the average family size in Nepal is more than five persons, if he conforms to the CIAA's cleanliness criteria he has to live on less than a dollar a day.

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, DFID, SDC and other donors want to improve the efficiency of this man in daura suruwal making a living on less than a dollar a day. They want him to be honest, hardworking, sincere, responsible, accountable, transparent, answerable, accessible, cheerful, helpful, understanding and effective. And still ride the bus, eat two square meals a day, pay for outrageously expensive health services if he happens to get sick, and do it all in less than what their officers tip the waiter at lunch.

If the absolute poverty of HMG officers is scary, their relative poverty is even more terrifying. Before 1980s, they were said to be the eyes, ears, hands, legs and sometimes even minds of the rulers. This gave them a sense of power which made their pitiable circumstances somewhat tolerable. But after the government took the path of 'structural reforms', the mask of power fell off the bureaucrats' faces. Overnight, government officers were transformed into adjuncts to powerful productivity advisers, efficiency consultants, austerity experts and other such minders earning up to a thousand times more than the people they were expected to help. The morale of His Majesty's loyal officers has never recovered since.

Since government salary is never enough to make ends meet, officers have three choices. Moonlighting is a sensible option for those who have beat the recruitment system of the government that makes it a point to hire, retain and promote only mediocre personnel. Inheritance is feasible for members of the bureaucracy whose ancestors have been far-sightedly corrupt to amass fortunes for their progenies. All others supple-ment their incomes with bribes simply to survive.

After his self-fulfilling prediction about the inevitable clash of civilisations, it has become academically unfashionable to quote Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. But his work on the relationship between modernisation and corruption is seminal: 'Corruption provides immediate, specific and concrete benefits to groups which might otherwise be thoroughly alienated from society. Corruption may thus be functional to the maintenance of political system in the same way that reform is. Corruption itself may be a substitute for reform and both corruption and reform may be substitutes for revolution. Corruption serves to reduce group pressures for policy changes, just as reform serves to reduce class pressures for structural changes.'

Donor-hired experts advising the government on administrative reform would do well to ask the basic question: is the government in a position to pay basic living expenses to its officers? If the answer is 'no', small changes in the day-to-day functioning of the government machinery may have more value than bulky reports on the 'transformation' of governance. The old adage about peanuts for monkeys applies to hakims too. Corruption needs to be fought at levels higher than the greasy hands pushing files to buy potatoes on the way home.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)