My personal experience with corruption in Mali is limited.  I’ve been in cabs in Bamako where it’s obvious that the police are pulling people over to get their bribes, and I’ve read articles about serious corruption in government agencies, but I have yet to deal with the issue firsthand.  With that said, the shadow of corruption and its ramifications in Malian society are ever-present.

During a session at our in-service training in early December, guest speaker Mamadou Kante, who works with Le Programme de Gouvernance Partagée spoke to the small enterprise development volunteers about the sprawling web of corruption that exists in Mali, and outside its borders, and the role it plays in hindering the country’s development.

Laughing at how ludicrous his synopsis must sound to us, Kante provided his frank opinion about the way things are done in Mali.  In short the corruption here can be sorted into several different segments – bribery; the “siphoning off” of government funds by officials; and the classic case of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Bribery takes place at every level.  The local municipalities and post offices benefit from the citizens that need to have papers stamped or pick-up packages.  Malian government officials benefit from the pay-offs they are given in exchange for granting large contracts. Many of the companies that are being granted contracts to complete large-scale infrastructure projects in Mali are headquartered in countries where bribery is an acceptable business practice.

Bribery is woven into the fabric of the government and business worlds and is an excepted practice among most citizens who do not understand their right to refuse to pay, or don’t want to bother with the hassle.  A Malian that was sitting in on our discussion described a situation in which he was asked to pay a bribe at a local municipality and refused.  After talking to supervisor upon supervisor, he was able to obtain the service needed without paying the bribe, but others in the room gave him a hard time about it, saying, “Come on, why are you making such a big deal out of this, just pay it.”

I find one of the most frustrating forms of corruption, is that of siphoning money from government budgets and international aid or NGO funding.  Earlier this year, officials in the Malian health ministry were accused of embezzling about $4 million from grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and MalariaThe GAVI Alliance suspended its grants to Mali earlier this year in response to suspicion of fraud.  Mali relies heavily on aid from foreign governments and international NGOs, and to think that this funding could be jeopardized by the selfish actions of civil servants is disturbing, at the least.

Corruption in all its forms is unacceptable.  Countries where corruption is rampant fair far worse in development rankings and typically have a stark gap between the rich and the poor.  But what can be done to solve a problem that is so grand in scale?  The most important weapons that can be used to fight corruption in Mali and around the world are transparency, rule of law and personal responsibility.

As volunteers, we are instructed to keep written records of all business transactions completed during our service and to never put only one person in charge of the financial aspect of our projects.  This checks and balances system allows us to ensure that our projects are clean and that the resources we provide to communities are used in the way initially intended.  In the same way, transparency can be the key to combating corruption on a much larger scale.

When the government is not the problem, but the solution, the rule of law can be a very valuable tool in cracking down on corruption and bringing the accused to justice.

Lastly, personal responsibility plays an undeniable role in reigning in corruption.  When people know their rights and understand the laws against, and consequences for, engaging in corruption, they can take personal steps to curb the “that’s just the way it is” attitude.

An end to corruption, both in Mali and worldwide, must be something to which individuals at all levels of society are committed.  It is my belief that a society that accepts corruption as the norm and doesn’t consider the potential of those who choose not engage, certainly stunts its potential for development and jeopardizes its international reputation significantly.