Borders are lines drawn on maps by Generals and diplomats. Usually in reality they are vague and porous when experienced on the ground. (See the middle of this post, or this older one Life on a porous border.) Yet without the “right” documents such imaginary lines become the margin between saftey
We have now seen hundreds of kilometres and many different aspects of life on the border. More and more these experiences cause me to reflect on the ethical issues around such borderline living, I’ll focus these on the question of bribery.
Bribery is wrong, such corruption is directly and indirectly responsible for much of the misery of the developing world, and especially this is true of the under-developing world. The giving and receiving of bribes is a great evil that we should all do everything we can to wipe out. It is the deadly mix of corruption and the attendant neglect of infrastructure and community development that together have placed the people of Congo and Burma among the poorest despite great wealth of natural resources in both countries.
But, when is a bribe not a bribe? And, if a gift IS a bribe, when is it ethically justifiable?
Take the refugee camp leader who himself has full travel papers, living across the border under the protection of troops of another government. These soldiers are far from home, living among people of a different ethnicity from them. This leader has visited the nearest city (an hour away by local bus) and on return gives the soldiers on guard a present of some fresh fruit. Is this a bribe? Or is it rather two humans each dislocated reaching in friendship across ethnic and national divides? The leader (having papers) needs nothing himself from the guard. But most people in the camp lack such papers. If a family member in another camp or village is sick, or marrying… to get official permission to travel is difficult, takes a long time and may be impossible, apparently at the camp commandant’s whim. Travelling without documents risks apprehension at the guard post and return to Burma. This is a horribly dangerous outcome. The fruit may encourage the guard to be less vigilant in enforcing an inhumane (though administratively necessary) government policy.
You are in a Songthaw (ute with seats in the back that acts as local bus service) travelling down the border, at each check point two young men cower down and look inconspicuous, an older man jumps out from the privileged seat beside the driver and palms some cash to the soldier, no one’s papers are checked.
On another Songthaw journey a different young man has no papers, he is dragged off under detention, and will be returned to a town deep in Burma that is firmly under military control.
When is a bribe not a bribe, just a humane gesture? When is a bribe justifiable? Is it better to save one life, or to promote a more economically just and desirable system?