Corruption and a culture of complacency

25 01 2010

I have realized what a classic American I am in my thinking by coming to Uganda.

As a westerner, I take for granted the key elements of living in a democratic society. I accept without doubt that there is a certain level of responsibility and checks and balances both the government and we as citizens have for each other. Politicians rise to power because they have an idea and ambition. They fall from power because they fail to do what they say and the people get fed up and vote them out. The power of the people is ultimate.

When I first arrived I was immediately drawn to trying to understand the political dynamics in Uganda. (I know, real shocker I was drawn to politics :)) As like most Americans, I knew very little about African, let alone Ugandan politics, and after two months, I am still struggling to figure it out.

The current leader, Museveni is “good” by a lot of African standards but then again that is not saying much. He has been in power since 1986 and Uganda still struggles at the bottom of most lists (health stats, growth, etc.). People die of preventable deaths here all the time. The roads are horrific and yet while people bitch nothing is ever done to change anything. Why is that? In my opinion, it is because Uganda has a “culture of complacency.” I realize that sounds harsh but unfortunately it is the best descriptor of general attitudes.

At first I thought Museveni was in power because there was no real organized opposition and that all they needed was a charismatic leader willing to call attention to the issues and lead a grassroots movement to change something. If people don’t like the roads, why can’t a local neighborhood band together and fix the road themselves? As other neighbors see the fixed roads, they become upset that the people who are supposed to fix the roads (government), aren’t and they apply pressure for change – basic elements of grassroots action. If enough people get riled up, change can happen.

Instead what I’ve realized is that nothing like this happens in Uganda because the prevailing mentality is that things are better than they were. There is a fear it could be worse so why try and make it better. In the U.S. every action is about being better – success and improvement are obsessions. Here the culture is to be complacent about the ailments of the country. Poverty is accepted. Death is tolerated as a regular part of life. Basic infrastructure needs (electricity, running water, communication technology, etc.) are interrupted all the time without rhyme or reason. People are not ignorant (though at times I wonder how much they are able to imagine how things can get better because of their limited exposure to a world outside of Uganda) – they know enough to get frustrated by it. But they also know enough to believe things can’t change. How do you change when things are so fundamentally corrupt? Who do you look to for change?

Government regularly gets in trouble for stealing huge amounts of money. Money for life-saving AIDS drugs disappears and there are shortages of drugs that should have been financed across the country. It is widely known that local police pull people over expecting a bribe in exchange for a get out of jail free pass. To get a passport in this country in any decent time period, you have to slip someone an extra 100,000 shillings. The stealing and corruption is not some sort of dirty little secret. It is wide open for everyone to see. And because of it, the motivation and belief that change can happen is non-existent.

Government is not the only sector where corruption prevails. My friends who are working in the private sector here regularly discuss how they know that literally every day someone is stealing from the company. They can choose to have a Western reaction and be outraged or they can accept it for what it is, plan around it and do the best they can to continue to grow the business despite of it. It is easy to see how people fall into the pattern of accepting corruption and become complacent.

Of course, like many critics of development, I am quick to point out a significant barrier in Uganda but remain clueless as to any suggestions on how to address the issue. Nonetheless as I’ve had countless conversations about this dilemma and think it is an important aspect to understand how things really work in Uganda, I decided it warranted a blog post.

Sorry for a not so cheery post.  I’ll try and add a nice fluff post with photos soon 🙂

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