Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tic Tac Corruption

After a day of driving for hours to meet with villagers in the field, some of our team decided to venture out of our hotel to get a little exercise and marvel at the beauty of Uganda’s landscape. Mount Abim towered over our hotel and seemed like a reasonable hike for us to do in the couple of hours we had before dinner.

We started the ascent, but a crowd quickly grew of children and young men who were interested in watching four “mzungus” struggle up the hill that they have no problem climbing. Once we got to the top, we quickly we learned that their interests also lied in potentially receiving some kind of reward for “guiding” us up the path.

In Business on the Frontlines, we frequently discuss the difference between aid and development and realized this was an opportunity for us not to buy into the system and simply handout money, especially when nothing was agreed upon from the outset. We did not want to become part of the problem.

Nonetheless, we wished that we had something small, like candy, to reward the younger people for their enthusiasm and smiles as we climbed the hill. As we hiked down, Kirsten remembered that she had a box of Tic Tacs in her purse from the Amsterdam airport. We guessed that there were about 50 mints left in the box, but probably close to 60 children at the bottom of the hill waiting for arrival back on the ground (they, of course, we much faster at getting to the bottom of the hill).

How were we going to going to equitably share the Tic Tacs? We didn’t want to start a riot among the children over the candies and we also wanted to make sure everyone got their fair share.

As we got closer to the bottom, we saw a man amongst the crowd of children who had told us he was a pastor for the local church while on top Mt. Abim. We decided the best method for sharing the Tic Tacs would be to give them to him and instruct him to share them with the children.

After much clapping to celebrate our successful hike at the bottom of the hill, Kirsten carefully took out the Tic Tacs and clearly instructed the pastor to share the Tic Tacs with the larger crowd of children, which appeared to grow to 70-80 people.

The pastor smiled and indicated that he understood our instructions and outstretched his hand. Upon receipt of the box he quickly took out one of the mints, gave it to his own son, pocketed the rest, and walked away.

Shocked at what he had just witnessed we called the pastor back – “wait, no that’s not we went meant. Distribute the mints now, with us here.” The pastor ignored us and kept walking.

This may seem like an inconsequential story, but after everything we learned about corruption and authority in Uganda we failed to put our findings in practice. In a sense, we are glad that it happened because the lessons of “Tic Tac Corruption” keep entering our dialogue.

What should we have done differently? Should we have paid the villagers at the top of the mountain? What about telling the children about the candy so they could hold the pastor accountable? Is the pastor doing the right thing by looking out for his family?

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