The Tipping Point of Corruption

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book right now called ‘The Tipping Point’. It’s one of those paperbacks that management consultants take with them on flights, packed with anecdotes and research that not only backs up the book’s thesis, but zigs and zags through other topics as well. The central idea is interesting: that the transportation of a product, idea or even social movement from its niche into the mainstream hinges on just a very few things, and that tweaks to these can result in massive changes.

One of these hinges is context. The author recalls the crime epidemic New York City suffered in the 80s and the early 90s, and reveals that violent crime on the subway fell drastically when the city introduced a strict policy of removing graffiti as soon as it was spotted. Removing graffiti doesn’t have an obvious connection to violent crime on the face of it, and the suggestion is that changing the environment to communicate a refusal to permit vandalism translated into an implicit message that more serious crime would also not be tolerated — a message that was taken seriously enough that crime fell by 75 percent!

The important points here are that systemic problems don’t necessarily need revolutionary remedies, and that these problems often rest on top of other issues that are more easily resolved.

Naturally, one wonders how these principles might be applied closer to home, as perhaps with the crippling problem of corruption. In case anyone needs a reminder, Pakistan ranks 144th in the world, behind even Iraq. Obviously, there are major legal and structural changes that need to happen within the bureaucracy to encourage transparency and accountability, but might smaller, easier changes have drastic effect? The one that comes most readily to mind is to bring salaries back in line with market rates, or at least the cost of living.

Happily, this needn’t be an exercise in pure rhetoric: there are facts and policies to examine here. The Central Board of Revenue, for example, has introduced a policy (at the prodding of the World Bank) to double the salaries of officers in crucial positions. The results so far? Mixed. Apparently, the very selection process for the scheme has become political, leading to more nepotism and back-scratching. In addition, I’ve heard first-hand about at least one person whose selection has actually impacted his performance negatively.

Given the fact that this policy is both well-intentioned and sensible, it seems the fault lies in how it is implemented. Enter the other two hinges mentioned in the book: implementation, and the implementor. The CBR’s scheme, for example, does not address the problem of accountability as it does not link the increased salary to performance, but rather to position. And the problem of nepotism exists only as long as the administrators of the scheme permit unfair selection to slide.

Corruption is one of several problems facing Pakistan that appear insurmountable because they have become so ingrained in the way things are done. ‘The Tipping Point’ is interesting in providing ways to decompose problems into more manageable constituents, and lending hope that tackling them is not a hopeless task.

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