Here’s a Little Nothing for Yourself

The CommGAP Blog has a fascinating story about worthless currency in India. No, not the usual kind. This kind is literaly worthless – as in, it’s a zero rupee note. The idea is to fight the rampant bribe culture in India. Read the original for more detail, but the broad outlines are that an Indian physics professor suggested the idea to 5th Pilar, an anti-corruption NGO. Citizens request the notes and then hand them to officials in place of bribes.

Shockingly, it’s actually been effective. You wouldn’t think so, right? Bribery is, unsurprisingly, a criminal offense in India, but then isn’t it everywhere? And yet, 5th Pilar reports a lot of success stories. What gives? Well, there are a lot of theories, but the one that I buy is this one:

This last point—people knowing that they are not alone in the fight—seems to be the biggest hurdle when it comes to transforming norms vis-à-vis corruption. For people to speak up against corruption that has become institutionalized within society, they must know that there are others who are just as fed up and frustrated with the system.

This is of course related to earlier discussion of Senator-elect Brown. A lot turns on knowing that people are organized. It’s one thing to experience corruption, realize how unpleasant it is, and make the obvious assumption that everyone else finds it unpleasant too. If you’re not convinced that they’re going to do anything about it, then you lose, plain and simple. Whatever erstwhile free service it is that the official in question has decided to start charging people for, you’re not gonna get it while others willing to pay the bribes will. It’s quite another thing, however, when you know that a lot of people are going to stand up as well – and you know that if an organization is issuing official “anti-corruption” currency that you can pay to an official in place of a bribe. It makes it look like an organized thing that a lot of people are participating in. It doesn’t have to be everyone – it just has to be enough people in your locale that the official in question has a real fear of being reported. And really, this only needs to be a handful.

In second place – I’ll bite – probably comes personal shame. I guess government officials who are enthusiastic about bribe-taking are actually in the minority – and that’s just because I genuinely believe that most humans are basically decent. Bribery spreads like anything else – padding your resume, for example. I guess most of us would prefer to just do good work and list our relevant accomplishments, but faced with the prospect of losing a job to someone less qualified than us just because he is willing to outright lie and we’re not, we shrug, tell ourselves it can’t be helped, and find ways to list technically irrelevant things like everyone else. I guess most government officials would prefer to live in a world where there are no bribes, but if everyone else around them is taking bribes, and not taking bribes will obviously be seen as a threat by those people, then promotions and even continued employment have a way of being on the line, or at least so he imagines. And like everything else, the first time is hard, but a couple more times after that and it comes to seem normal. Eventually, when your life plans come to include your bribery income, you start to see it as an entitlement.

Well, I wish the zero rupee campaign the best of luck. I imagine they will hit a wall at the corporate level, but you never know.

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