How to Spread it: Corruption buster fights the good fight

2015-01-18 15:00

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Robtel Neajai Pailey has written for publications across the world, including the International New York Times, and news and opinion website The Daily Beast.

Once a hard-hitting opinion columnist for the independent Liberian newspaper New Narratives, she has provided Liberians with the information they need to demand accountability from their leaders.

Her children’s book, Gbagba (it means trickery in her mother’s Bassa language), was launched in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, in February 2013. It was followed by subsequent launches in America and the UK.

The same year the Diplomatic Courier, an English-language international affairs magazine, named her one of its 99 Under 33. This is a list of the world’s most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33. Last year, Pailey completed a PhD in development studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Scholarship.

Why is it so important to speak up about corruption in Liberia in particular and Africa in general?

Corruption breeds inequality and undermines social cohesion. It is often thought of as something that only those with “entrusted power” engage in, like those in government or, more increasingly, those in big business. But I think corruption is the little acts of trickery that all of us engage in to bypass systems we find cumbersome or problematic.

In Liberia and elsewhere, many people rationalise corruption as a legitimate way of getting ahead, of amassing wealth, of cheating the system.

Because our systems can be easily navigated and there are few consequences for transgressors – especially the rich and powerful – people have come to believe that the only way to personal fulfilment is by hook or by crook. Another common phenomenon is that Liberians see corruption as “outside” of themselves.

We often point fingers at governments failing to realise that those who are democratically elected are a reflection of the nation. So, if a government is corrupt and corruptible, its citizenry can be accused of being the same. We have got to change the discourse on corruption. This means in our schools, workplaces, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, local communities and our nations.

Why have you concentrated your considerable energy on children?

After teaching in two Liberian universities and working in policy spaces in national government, I realised that integrity must be strengthened in the earliest stages of a child’s life to mitigate the practice of corruption in the next generation.

It’s virtually impossible to expect that an 18-year-old approaching adulthood is going to develop scruples all of a sudden, especially when his/her society does not value honesty.

Children who are eight to 10 years old are the perfect targets because it is at this stage that they begin to form a moral compass. If we train children in ethical living early, they can serve as allies in the fight against corruption.

When did you first encounter corruption?

I was always disturbed by how corruption permeated every facet of life in Liberia, but there was an incident in 2010 that really jarred me. At the time, I was chairing a Liberian government scholarships committee and we had embarked on a reform process to make international scholarships merit based, transparent and gender balanced.

We discovered that a group of 18-year-old boys had forged their national exam records to become eligible for scholarships to Morocco. When we confronted them, they denied any wrongdoing, until one of them finally confessed.

I was deeply concerned that these young men, in the prime of their adolescence and on the verge of adulthood, were prepared to get ahead by any means necessary. They had already internalised the fact that many Liberians believe honesty and integrity are akin to stupidity.

What role is inequality playing in corruption today?

Corruption is a function of poverty and greed. I recognise this having lived in Liberia, the US and the UK for most of my adult life. These countries are some of the most unequal societies in the world. To mitigate poverty- and greed-induced corruption, we need to tip the scales in favour of a more equal share of the world’s wealth so everyone has the chance to live a dignified life.

So the world is increasingly inured to corruption?

There’s definitely a slide in ethical values across the globe, primarily because of conspicuous consumption and the high levels of materialism. But there are also people who remain immune to all of that. For example, my parents taught me how to be in the world without being consumed by its excesses. It’s one of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt.

What was the motivation for the Diplomatic Courier choosing you as a ‘shaper’ for the Top 99 Under 33 awards?

I changed the public discourse on an aspect of foreign policy – corruption – and raised awareness of the issue.

.?This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network.

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