I was tempted to pay a bribe during a trip to Kenya. To be clear, I wasn’t asked to pay a bribe. It wasn’t remotely suggested by anyone in Kenya. I was simply tempted. Here’s what happened and why a review of how we think and talk about corruption is important.
In mid-November, I traveled to Kenya to attend the Investing in Innovation Access to Market event in Nairobi. The event celebrates the work of 30 African healthcare innovators and connects them to government officials and industry and philanthropy leaders in an attempt to expand the work of the innovators. As I sometimes do during business travel, I took copies of our book, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty to distribute to the hardworking innovators and other partners at the event. In this case, I traveled with 40 books.
As I walked out of the airport with my luggage, I was stopped by a customs official. He informed me that I needed to pay import duties for the books. I told him I wasn’t selling them and was simply giving them away as gifts. He said it didn’t matter and I still had to pay. I didn’t know any better so I complied. This is where my troubles began.
It took the customs official more than 30 minutes to fill out the form and necessary paperwork so the books could legally be brought into the country. After he calculated how much I owed the Kenyan government–roughly $120–he asked how I was going to pay, to which I responded: credit card. He said no problem. It took another 40 minutes for him to get the credit card machine to work so I could pay.
So, after flying for almost nine hours to Nairobi, via London, and spending over an hour to go through immigration and wait for my luggage, I had to spend another hour waiting for the customs official to take roughly $120 from me. This is when the temptation happened.
I was not only tired and hungry, but also felt dirty, the way one feels after a long day of traveling. It is then I reasoned, what might happen if I offered the custom official $50 to let me through? I didn’t ask and waited until he got the machine to work. After I paid however, the entire experience got me thinking about corruption.
In The Prosperity Paradox, my co-authors and I dedicate an entire chapter on the issue. We write that corruption is not the problem; it’s a solution. In effect, we explain that people hire corruption in order to make progress. And when a society offers few legitimate options to make progress, corruption becomes more attractive. In my case, progress was leaving the airport as quickly as possible. The legitimate way to leave the airport ended up wasting more than an hour of my time when I was vulnerable: tired, hungry, and dirty. This made corruption in that context very attractive. Although I did not yield to its temptation, I can better understand why people do.
The experience at the airport also exposed to me the severity of Kenya’s poor institutional development. And by extension, Africa’s. Consider this. The particular institution I interfaced with was designed to collect money and increase revenues for the government. If a weary traveler still had to wait more than an hour simply to pay the government, this does not bode well for institutions designed to provide services to the people.
So, what is there to do?
At the very least, poor countries should invest in improving the “institutions” designed to collect revenues. My experience would have been entirely different if the Kenyan government prioritized travelers bringing in products that required import duty payments. This not only increases the finances of the government but it also improves the experience for travelers.
In my TED talk on corruption and innovation, I explain that “societies don’t develop because they’ve reduced corruption; they reduce corruption because they’ve developed.” By focusing on institutions like the one I experienced, governments can begin to create situations where fewer people are tempted to engage in corruption.