Friday, June 30

Helping Mexico deal with their government corruption: no rose garden anywhere

[Re June 27 post Corruption in Mexican politics]
. . . How did Mexico's government get so corrupt, how has it stayed so corrupt, and how can America change it while still respecting Mexico's sovereignty?

I've always wondered why Mexicans allowed the rampant political corruption I always hear about - much like the government of the city of Chicago, IL is (supposedly) perpetually corrupt.
Art Lueck

Dear Mr. Lueck:
Thank you for your questions, which allow me to dredge up a few Pundita Golden Oldie essays and expound on themes near to my heart. As we head for the July 4th holiday I can’t think of a more fitting time to discuss the matters at hand.

More than a year ago Dave Schuler forwarded me the substance of an interchange that took place years ago between Suharto and Paul Wolfowitz. After hearing Wolfowitz’s complaints about endemic corruption in Indonesia's government, Suharto replied that what seemed to be corruption to Westerners was taking care of family to the Indonesians.

Of course that excuse is a crock -- Indonesia's bureaucrats were Westernized enough to skin the World Bank for uncounted millions -- so my reply to Dave was that I would do a post about the comment "when my blood pressure returns to normal."

So here we are today, with Pundia's blood pressure still elevated every time I recall Suharto's comment. This said, when looking at countries where paying graft is the only way to get anything done with relation to public works, it helps to think in pre-democracy terms. "Anything" points to the difference between Chicago-style corruption and government in countries such as Mexico, Indonesia, Russia and India. You don't have to bribe a Chicago official (plus pay the license fee) to get a driver's license in Chicago. But in countries such as Mexico, there is what is called 'vertical' corruption -- graft permeating the entire government structure from the 'federal' down to the local level, and in every department of government.

When Americans ask how corruption could be verticalized in a government that is even nominally democratic, we need to look at pre-democracy forms of government in those countries. I took a swipe at the issue in a 2004 blog titled To the Ramparts fellow billionaires! Save Russian democracy!
And Russia has something called verticalization of corruption. That kind of corruption is distinct from the corruption represented by the financial clout of the Oligarchs, although both kinds of corruption intersect. But the Oligarchs had so much power when Putin came into office that it's misleading to think of it as corruption. It was an oligarchic government, which formed the woof of the tapestry of governments in Eurasia. That government is not gone yet, and the remnants are fighting tooth and nail to retain power.
Mexico's history of government is more patriarchal than oligarchic, but the same concept applies: you're not engaging in graft, you're paying tribute to dignitaries who have complete control over dispensation of favors toward you. In places such as India (and Iran, if I am not mistaken) the system is simply called 'baksheesh.' Whatever name it goes by, it is a time-honored protocol of paying tribute to the ruler you petition for help.

Why cling to the protocol in a democratic nation, which is ruled by laws and not men? Because if democracy crashes, you'd best stay on the good side of powerful clans, which will snatch the crown and scepter out of chaos.

It's pulling teeth to overcome that mindset, even for those who are well-informed about the situation. Why is it so hard? Because the weight of history is on the side of that mindset, and so -- as happened in Sicily when the villagers contemplated fighting the Mafia bosses -- it takes realizing that uncertainty is the handmaiden to genuine democracy. That much uncertainty is a hard thing for peoples who can only remember depending on the governing decisions of clan patriarchs, kings and emperors to give them the illusion of certainty.

So while it certainly takes courage to protest in the streets against a repressive regime and cast one's vote in opposition to hired goons, it takes another kind of courage to live with the thought that if City Hall screws up in a democracy the buck stops at your desk.

I believe that once newly democratized peoples get very clear on just how much work a democracy entails, many prefer the tradeoffs to freedom under authoritarian government.

However, the wheel has turned for humanity. Now there are just too damn many of us clamoring for basics such as decent public education, functioning highway systems, and safe drinking water. And only a tiny minority among us can afford to pay baksheesh for every little thing that needs to be done in a modern society.

So that is enlightenment at the point of a gun: democracy is no longer a choice. Democratic government is the only way to accomplish the galactic-sized task of accommodating the basic living needs of megapopulations.

That is the stance we take in Punditaland, at any rate. I leave it to others to defend democracy in moral terms. I say there is no way to get good government in a modern, heavily populated, highly complex society unless the governing decision-making is spread among a majority of the adult population. Dependence on oligarchs and patriarchs to haul the burden of decision-making for us is a luxury the human race can no longer afford.

The most powerful counterargument is that the world's poorest cannot afford the time it takes to participate in even a representative democracy, so they must continue to accept the tradeoff of authoritarian government -- even though it's a suicidal decision.

I set off a small firestorm of protest when I made that point in Democracy Stage Show Kit. The essay’s critics were Westerners who clearly were not very familiar with the issues for global development and aid; one pointed out that the early American settlers were also greatly overworked but still found time to engage in participatory government in their region.

True, but the settlers did not have to walk 15 miles a day every day through civil war carrying just enough firewood on their head to cook the day's meal. There is no question that time management is a huge factor in a people's ability to sustain their participation in a democracy -- as any American carrying two jobs and commuting 20 miles a day through gridlock can attest.

The counter- counterargument was made by Muammar al-Gaddafi, of all people, who pointed out that democracy is not a Western invention and that it's basically the people in a tribe sitting around talking and making group decisions.

That is why Pundita was shocked speechless -- a very rare occurrence -- when I read that Bill Gates had sneered at the work to develop a $100 laptop computer for Third World peoples. He said that people wouldn't want to work with such a small computer screen. Has this man never heard of a Blackberry?

Third World peoples are already working on tiny screens as soon as they can get their hands on a cell phone. They’re text messaging in order to do business and discuss problems in their region.

Low wattage talk radio stations, firing up the cell phones -- by any which way that people in the harshest parts of the world can participate in the government, that is where US aid can do exponential good.

But now we arrive at the brass tacks of your questions because only a small number among Mexico’s population faces the kind of development problems that are rife in say, regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever the pre-democratic model for Mexico government, the stage show that has passed for democracy in Mexico is propped not by ruling families but by something called crony capitalism -- and in Mexico’s case, that brand of capitalism has been promoted largely by the US government and the large US companies that lobby them.

Yet if non-democratic government can no longer be considered a time-saver, crony capitalism is an absolute albatross. Modern society can no longer support crony capitalism, which, for starters, created entrenched anti-Americanism in many parts of the globe and worked at every turn against American democratic ideals. It has done this by propping up more corrupt elites than you can shake a stick at. That is certainly the case for Mexico.

Crony capitalism will be the topic of my next blog but for now the term is the polite way that development professionals refer to neocolonialism. The problem for Americans is that if we pressure our government into suspending the practice as much as possible, another government – China, EU, etc. -- will be happy to take up the slack in Mexico and elsewhere.

The best I can say is that President Bush never promised the world a rose garden; all he said was that this is going to be liberty’s century and that we’d have to engage in a sustained struggle to bring it about.

Either we recognize that genuine democracy is the best security policy for the US or we don’t. We need to face that some Americans are not ready for the realization because -- in the short term – genuine democracy in the up-and-coming nations can work against increasingly globalized American jobs, companies, and investments.

To gain a little sympathy or at least understanding for this viewpoint: Are you willing to have your penion fund yank investment in Starbucks because the company does business in Saudi Arabia -- a country that treats women like brain-damaged children?

If you're a newspaper editor, are you willing to have one of your employees spend the rest of his life in a China jail if you push hard for stories that greatly embarrass China's ruling party?

And what about Mexico? If the US government fights crony capitalism there, can they deal with the flack if Mexico re-channels the bulk of their oil sales to China and the EU?

There is no easy answer – and the answers get harder when posed for less advanced countries. Years ago, during South Africa’s apartheid regime, a man with ties to the highest level of India’s government was asked to advise on whether India should yank their support for the regime. He bumped the question to me.

Pointing to a gruesome BBC TV report on tribal bloodshed in South Africa, he asked, “Do you really think these people are ready for democracy?”

I remember closing my eyes, closing out the images of butchered humans, but images of equally horrific civil strife in other heavily tribalized parts of the world rose before my mind’s eye. Yet there was no agony of indecision. It was as if I’d had my answer ready for ten thousand years.

I snapped, “We’ll never know whether they’re ready, will we, unless they’re given the chance.”

Many, many times since I have anguished over my reply. After seeing what happened in post-apartheid South Africa, I thought, ‘There must have been some way to have done the transition more easily.’

Then, no. Today, yes; now there are ways that First World governments could have helped the new government avert the worst. But the ways emerged just because so much horror ensued in the wake of such painful transitions.

There is simply no way to bring about liberty’s century without almost everybody getting hurt, one way or another. And the longer governments resist democratic reforms, the rougher the transition has been -- even with intervention by the First World governments.

Right now, the best way Americans can help the Mexicans is to first help ourselves by getting educated about the worst effects of Americans practicing crony capitalism in Mexico. Then we can set up a howl about the practice and enlist the aid of the many American businesspeople who look with distaste at that brand of capitalism.

The second way is to do whatever we can to support genuine pro-democracy organizations connected with Mexico that ask for Americans for help. (‘Genuine’ meaning organizations that are not a front for American corporate interests.)

Thirdly, we can breathe down the neck of USAID and State Department officials and World Bank project and program managers. And we can lean on US congressionals who sit on foreign relations committees.

State, USAID and the World Bank’s president are very clear on the need to put verticalized corruption out of business the world over. Against this are American corporate officers who ask, “Are you nuts or just born without a brain? How’re we supposed to compete in that country without making payoffs to officials?”

So here’s a tip: The more support Paul Wolfowitz receives from the general public for his anti-corruption drive, the more progress he can make at the Bank in that area.

The same holds true for giving support to crusading congressionals on both sides of the political aisle. The more well-reasoned arguments they receive from the public, the easier it is for them to fight for legislation that supports pro-democracy programs in the other parts of the world. (Just make sure the congressionals are not huffing and puffing on behalf of a foreign or US lobbying organization.)

Fourth, Americans who want to help in Mexico need more education on the nuts and bolts of democracy – how it works in practice and how to develop it in a country that doesn’t have our mature legislative infrastructure in place.

To paraphrase an Ayn Rand quote, before we can help others make democracy work, we need to learn just exactly how it works. I think many educated Mexicans leave Americans in the dust when it comes to understanding the technical issues, just because they are so involved in the process of making democracy work.

Imagine someone handed you a few million dollars and said, “Go to Mexico and help those people get more democracy.”

Just exactly how would you go about it? If you have workable ideas by all means send them to the World Bank, USAID or your favorite congressionals.

And speaking of education -- before we growl at USAID, State and the World Bank, we need to be informed about what they’re already doing to foster democracy in Mexico.

I tell you nothing is more embarrassing than to dash off an outraged email to USAID or the World Bank then receive a smug reply directing the outraged citizen to the programs they’ve already gotten underway.

Fifth, we can keep tabs on companies that work with USAID and the Bank to carry out technical assistance programs. Write them letters and take a general interest in their ideas and how the TA projects are coming along. Such companies are also a good place to find contacts in Mexico that might be interested in receiving help from individual Americans. One place to start is by reading about the contract that Casals and Associates received from USAID
Strengthening Democracy and Governance in Mexico
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission to Mexico awarded C&A a $22.5 million contract to assist Mexico in strengthening democracy and governance. The five-year award folds together several smaller USAID/Mexico democracy and governance contracts, including Project Atlatl, a two-year transparency and anti-corruption contract C&A was awarded in June 2001.

Under the new contract, C&A’s technical assistance to Mexico is focusing on enhancing public management and service delivery; improving institutional frameworks; developing incentives to increase public revenues; enhancing intra-government and citizen oversight; promoting participatory and responsive political processes to address policy priorities; and adopting state-of-the-art financial-management procedures to improve government performance and increase transparency and accountability.

A Regional Forum on Good Government, bringing together more than 250 Mexican government officials from 24 Mexican states and delegates from 11 countries in Central America and the Caribbean, was one of the project’s recent successes.
This mention of C&A should not be considered an endorsement. Pundita has no connection whatsoever with the website, the company or any of the associates and I won’t vouch for the company’s work. However, the website helps educate Americans who don’t work in technical assistance fields connected with global development.

Finally, we can muster more humility and patience than Americans are known for. Every time I become frustrated with the situation in Mexico I force myself to remember New Orleans two days after Hurricane Katrina struck.

Pundita was so shocked that I yelled at the TV screen, “Why do I bother finding examples in Russia and India? We’ve got the 14th century right here in the USA!”

Yes indeed; right here in America was oligarchic government and the feudal serf mentality –- the effects of which exposed for the world to see on satellite TV. I was so ashamed for my country that I wanted to crawl under the couch.

Yet the shame is money in the bank while trying to help people in other countries deal with their remnants of earlier centuries. It helps to quote liberally from America’s rocky history so that the people know we’ve been there, done that too.

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