Geographies in Depth

Why bribery in Africa can no longer be tolerated

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A strong society rests upon trust in the law. Businesses must do all they can to ensure it is upheld. Image: Reuters/Noor Khamis

Soraya Narfeldt
Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson, RA International
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Africa’s young are more educated, informed and world-aware than ever before. The next generation cannot – and should not – face a future where bribery and corruption are considered normal.

African history is blighted by colonization and corruption, with corporate entities taking advantage of the region’s rich natural resources at the expense of the environment and local populations – often leaving very little of benefit behind. In an age of compliance and transparency, this is now unacceptable – but adherence to regulatory requirements should only be the starting point.

Organizations in Africa (local or foreign) often operate in places far away from regulatory oversight or in countries that struggle to enforce the law. Bribery has often been one of the easiest forms of corruption. Transparency International – which calls itself “the global coalition against corruption” – claims that 75 million people in Africa pay bribes. Bribery is especially problematic in the judiciary system, with bribes being accepted to escape punishment or to access the most basic of legal services.

The former chair of Transparency International, José Ugaz, said: “Corruption creates and increases poverty and exclusion. While corrupt individuals with political power enjoy a lavish life, millions of Africans are deprived of their basic needs like food, health, education, housing, access to clean water and sanitation.”

Policymakers must work to rid the continent of corruption by making it easier and safer for people to report it. Whistleblowers must be protected, no matter where they work – public or private sector. They must be given legal protection and safeguarded from retribution. Reporting channels should be transparent and on public record. However, bribery and corruption also come from unexpected quarters.

The existence of poverty and conflict in various parts of Africa means that many of the poorest, most dispossessed and most vulnerable in society are vulnerable to bribery. In some circumstances, refugees fleeing war zones or communities displaced by ethnic cleansing have been forced to pay bribes to get to safety. In 2017, civilians running from religious and ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic were ordered to pay bribes of up to $100 to private contractors to be smuggled across the border. Private contractors not only break the law in these situations but betray the moral obligation that they have signed up to. Furthermore, they erode trust in private businesses, government agencies and the very international bodies that are working so hard to improve their circumstances.

A responsibility to go beyond our obligations

A strong civil society rests upon safety, security and trust in lawmakers and those in positions of power – including employers. Companies that operate in developing markets have a responsibility to go beyond compliance. They must act in total transparency and be seen to do so. They must act to ensure that any potential acts of wrongdoing are anticipated and prevented from happening through the creation and implementation of reporting standards and policies that make unethical actions incredibly difficult. All companies, whether foreign or African, have a moral duty to ensure that the wrongdoings that have often plagued the continent in the past do not happen again.

Private organizations should therefore not only meet their obligations but go above and beyond them to make sure that they leave behind a positive legacy. The United Nations sets out clear guidelines in the 10 principles of the UN Global Compact. It calls upon companies to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption; and take actions that advance social goals. These principles should be embraced by private contractors so that attempts at corruption or bribery are made impossible. This is especially important for those companies operating in deprived communities or employing vulnerable people.

In Africa, many private companies are contracted to set up and manage entire communities in remote areas, including mines that are hundreds of miles from law enforcement. To operate above standard industry practices, our organization, RA International, has voluntarily adopted UN Global Compact standards to ensure complete transparency across all our operations. We have vocally adopted a zero-tolerance policy on bribery so that right across the supply chain and at border posts, everybody knows that bribes are not tolerated. This hardline, vocal attitude sends a powerful signal to all: that even the suggestion of a bribe will be met with severe consequences.

A zero-tolerance approach is important symbolically and a powerful way of changing mindsets. If those who are minded towards corruption sense that most people around them are not, social change can take place. In remote settings such as mines or during humanitarian disasters, private contractors have only one day to send this powerful message: day one. From the first day on-site, managers and supervisors must make it clear that zero-tolerance means zero-tolerance, no matter what the circumstances. Companies must also budget accordingly to ensure that the time it takes to set up anti-corruption policies and procedures on-site are a properly paid for, integral part of the job itself: safe, transparent, ethical and effective. Organizations that hire private contractors should also recognise the value of investing in such protocols.

Have you read?

Those of us who enter locales with entrenched poverty, conflict or humanitarian issues are the lucky ones: we can help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is morally reprehensible and totally abhorrent to engage in bribery or turn a blind eye to it when we are the very people trusted to help. By partnering with private companies that shine a light on corruption and bribery, organizations can operate above industry standards and deliver better outcomes for those that need it most.

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