Where is the line in regards to bribery? Is it okay if you can start an NGO that will benefit the community in the end? Or is it always wrong? Is it okay if you are being bribed unjustly to avoid more time and resources being wasted? Or to get out of a traffic ticket? Is bribing more than just money? Is hinting at other incentives to helping someone else out a bribe?
I wish I had the answers. I wish I knew what is completely right and what is completely wrong. But, I don't. Life is lived in gray and when it comes to the good and bad of the world, it seems difficult to be 100% good or 100% bad. It seems to be a lot of good with some questionable decisions, or bad happening with good intentions.
On paper, bribes are bad. Bribes are wrong. It feeds into a system of corruption. But, if you are trying to get a recommendation letter from a local council member and they refuse to even meet with you until you hand over some cash, should you just stop trying, or just pay the bribe so you can continue the process?
Acacia Avenue Designs has been lucky so far. I wish I could say my wit and magical way of speaking about the issues that arise when you bribe were the reason AAD has succeeded in not having to pay a bribe so far. (knock on wood). But, I can't.
We have the people we have been in contact with to thank.
AAD's workshop is located in the Rubaga District, in Mengo. In this district after searching through creepy old buildings and boda-ing around Mengo we FINALLY found the LC1. This gentleman and I sat on car seats that had been ripped out of a vehicle and placed under a canopy. After shaking hands and exclaiming how excited I was that the search was over and he had time to meet with me, I began explaining the reason behind AAD and showed him our Business Plan. He then grabbed his battered briefcase, removed a piece of paper with the header for the Chairman of Mengo on it and wrote out a recommendation letter. Then, he spent 20 minutes finding and writing down the numbers for the LC2, LC3, and Regional Community Commissioner (RCC). After receiving a stamp of approval I thanked the LC1 for his time and got up from the seat to make my way back to the boda driver that was patiently waiting for me.
Before I walked away the LC1 informed me that he would call the LC2 on my behalf and meet us both on Saturday. I thanked him again and did not think anything of his request to be present on Saturday.
Saturday came quickly and I arrived on time to the meeting. 45 minutes later the LC1 finally arrived. We waited at the Vision Hotel (a hotel near the AAD workshop). Ordering African tea and talking about the organization the LC1 wanted to start. We waited patiently. A half a dozen conversations later of "I am five minutes away" (for 2 hours) from the LC2, he finally rushed through the door. Within the 5 minutes I saw the LC2 he took 5 phone calls and plainly inquired, "Did the chairman tell you about the fee?" Taken aback, I looked at the LC1. The LC1 began speaking in Luganda. The LC2 agreed to whatever was said and then turned to me and said that he would be back within the hour to give me a recommendation letter. 4 hours later the LC2 had still not shown his face again.
In the 4 hours of waiting I questioned the LC1 about what was said in Luganda and what the LC2 meant when he talked about "the fee". The LC1 explained that the LC2 was asking for a bribe and the LC1 had stepped in and reprimanded him. From what the LC1 told me, he had explained to the LC2 that AAD would help the community and so we should be supporting AAD and not forcing bribes.
It dawned on me why the LC1 had been so insistent on accompanying me to the meeting. He was aware that there was a chance that I was going to be bribed and he helped put an end to it thankfully.
After more phone calls and excuses it was determined that the LC2 was not coming back that day and I would have to retrieve the recommendation letter from him on Monday.
Exasperated I thanked the LC1 for his time and calmness and teachings (in the 4 hours he wrote out Luganda phrases for me to 'become a true Ugandan') and grabbed a boda to get home and vent about the frustrations of waiting.
On Monday, the 29th of September I met the LC2 at the workshop, showed him around and retrieved the recommendation letter. He made no mention of 'the fee' he had requested on Saturday and I was NOT going to bring it up.
2 recommendation letters down. Now, AAD still needed ones from the LC3, RCC, and 2 sureties (businesses in Uganda that could vouch for us), and the line ministry.
The LC3 in the Rubaga district is the Deputy Mayor. Her crony got my number to contact me when the recommendation letter was written and ready for pick up. I call him a crony, because the following morning I received a phone call that went something like,
"Hello dia. The letter is ready. Don't forget the money"- Crony
"Ssebo. What money?"- me
"Bring money to take letter".- Crony
"Why? There is no fee for a recommendation letter"- me
"Bring money"- Crony
The phone call ended abruptly (in all likelihood because he ran out of airtime) and I was not about to use my airtime to have a conversation about bribing.
I took a trusted boda from the stage near my home in Nsambya to the KCCA office (where the LC3 is located). On the way I asked him about bribes and how to not pay. The bodas suggestion was to "give small money" and explained that in Uganda it is common practice to bribe and is just easier and helps move the process along.
On the walk up the stairs I rehearsed different ways to explain why a bribe shouldn't be paid. In all honesty I had also decided on a small amount that I was willing to pay if a bribe was the only way to go. Bribing is wrong. But, it felt worse to have the process come to a standstill because I was stubborn and refused to pay small money.
Luck was on my side again and I was ushered into the LC3's office. I shook her hand and exchanged pleasantries. My fear of having to pay a bribe evaporated when she pushed the letter towards me and asked if she could bring her daughters by sometime to see the workshop and was excited that we would be working in her district. I agreed and had a short conversation about women in high roles in the community and the importance of women empowerment.
I'm not sure how the conversation would have gone if the LC3 was male, but she made no mention of a bribe and seemed genuinely pleased that AAD decided to open its branch in the Rubaga District.
5 down. (Cornerstone and Sseko Designs were our sureties and were willing to write recommendation letters for our organization).
The RCC letter of recommendation was a frustrating process, but it all ended well with no bribe being paid.
So, the process is almost complete. Fingers crossed that there will be a blog post very soon that ALL of the paperwork has been submitted and that we are waiting for approval from the NGO board. Hopefully, luck will continue to be on our side and we will have completed the entire process without having to pay a bribe.
When I have discussed the process with fellow expats I have received high fives for not having to pay a bribe. I have gotten astonished looks from boda drivers saying that they have never heard of a Mzungu NOT paying a bribe. I have heard horribly frustrating stories of NGO's going through the same process not being able to continue due to LC's refusing to see the individual until a bribe is paid.
Here at AAD, we are lucky. We are lucky to have the people we have supporting us. We are lucky that the place we so happened to open our branch in Uganda has an LC1 that will sit for hours on end with a Country Director to ensure that a bribe doesn't have to be paid. We are lucky that we have Ugandan women AND men that are excited and supportive of our cause. We are lucky that not a single bribe has been paid by AAD to keep the process going.
So, we don't have all the answers. I don't know when it is okay to pay a bribe and when it is okay to not. Thankfully, I haven't had to do it yet. If that time comes I hope to have a better answer for everyone.
Thank you for all your support. Feel free to share your views on bribery and when/if it is good or bad, and where to draw the line.