Peace Corps Life in a Culture of Corruption

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In case you’ve forgotten, Albania is the country across the sea from Italy’s boot heel directly to the east.

Albania recently scored 2 points better than last year on a 10 point corruption ratings index, putting it at rank 116 out of 177 countries (lower rank = less corrupt.) I wanted to write about how corruption affects life here in Albania and how it isn’t really corruption as we know it in the USA.

First, you have to understand it is a culture of corruption where corruption is the norm rather than the exception. Yes, it corruption in the sense that extra-legal fees are required for services that aren’t legally offered or legally don’t require such payments. But it is not corruption in the sense that it is a stigmatized exceptional act. In Albania, the health, legal, and education system all require bribes to such an extent that it is simply “business as usual”. It is assumed you need to “have coffee with” professors, judges, police, etc. to have a passing grade, have legal processes completed, or to drive a car.

Only until recently did this affect me so personally. You see, the effect of this culture of corruption is that people automatically assume you are corrupt as well. For example, rumors were spread about me that my (failed) attempts to build a chemistry lab at the local university were just a sly ploy to give a friend $4000. Apparently the chemistry lab was just a cover story and I only wanted the dean’s signature to cover myself.

In another case, a fellow Peace corps Volunteer soon found that coworkers weren’t willing to work on a project because they assumed that money for a grant was simply taken by the local partner implementing the grant and they were upset to not have been given a “cut”.

A funnier memory I have is listening to someone regret not having taken bribes during a recent land legalization process because “a little is allowed.” By not taking bribes he had “left money on the table”.

Like other problems in Albania such as nepotism and political hiring in employment, solving the issue requires people go without that which they feel they have a right to. It is as if accepting bribes or the power to give jobs to your nephews is a part of your compensation package like a 401k or health insurance or a company car.  Asking people not to take bribes is asking them to take a large cut in their income and power that they feel is due to them.

Imagine you’ve paid bribes your whole life and now you finally have a job because your political party won. Then, someone from a wealthy country who has never worked the earth or relied on a wood stove for heat wants you to voluntarily accept a cut in pay to achieve an abstract goal you don’t fully understand or believe is possible. That is sort of what it is like to expect people in a culture of corruption to give up corrupt practices.

In conclusion, high levels of corruption are yet another way in which the culture of a developing nation actively works against the development of said nation. Personally, my experience here has made me more appreciative of American culture because something I had taken for granted, in this case the relatively low levels of corruption in america, I now see as something to be thankful for because I know how bad it can be. On another personal note, learning that rumors were being spread that I was corrupt was very disheartening. These rumors were spread by the Dean, the very man who prevented my investment in his University after I had spent considerable time developing a laboratory project with professors and the student council. I must admit that I asked myself “Why even try at all if this is going to happen?”

Sometimes Peace Corps is a bummer.

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2 responses to “Peace Corps Life in a Culture of Corruption

  1. The very fact that these concepts of a corruption-free society are so “abstract” are indicative of society that does not have the capacity to “think” for itself. And by “think,” I mean envisioning a goal for the collective and creating a road map to achieve this goal outside of self-serving interests.

    For the better part of half a century, Albanians didn’t need to think for themselves. They had the omnipotent state to do that for them. Now that the collective goal-setter has been removed from the equation and free market capitalism has taken it’s place, you see the ugly result. Nobody cares for the collective – it’s all about ME. This permeates every aspect of Albanian society aside from family matters. Need a parking space to have coffee? The middle of the road will do. Why? Because *I* need a coffee. Want to open up a coffee shop but the neighborhood already has ten? Go ahead – it’s all about *MY* coffee shop.

    Inevitably, this leads to the half-way functioning society as we see it. One reasonably successful business idea (coffee shop, call center, bar) is copied by the masses who lack the creative ability to think for themselves. The government posts are all given to people who have supported *ME* despite the fact that it leads to huge economic losses and inept officials when they turn over every election cycle.

    The most maddening thing is, as an outsider, there’s simply nothing you can do. Like an alcoholic, they have to want to change. And apathy in this society is endemic.

  2. Pingback: Top 10 (Actually Interesting) Facts about Albania | dude, where's my gomar?·

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