Corruption, consumerism and conflict

I’m in the beautiful Swedish city of Gothenberg where I gave a seminar today on ‘Religion and Attitudes Towards Corruption in India and Nigeria’ at the Quality of Government Institute. In the presentation I summarised the main findings coming out of research funded as part of the Religions and Development research programme at the University of Birmingham. The slides for the presentation can be found here – QoG presentation – Marquette.

One of the most interesting findings of the research, I think, is around the issue of consumerism. In both countries, respondents clearly blamed increased levels of corruption in recent years on ‘consumerist’ and ‘materialistic’ aspects of modernisation and globalisation. In Nigeria, this was always linked to ‘westernisation’, but in India, it was linked instead to globalisation, and several respondents made it clear that by this they did not mean westernisation. For the Indian respondents, we are all being consumed by (over) consumption.

As far as corruption goes, the words of the respondents themselves express this much more eloquently and colourfully than I ever could.
From India:  A schoolboy is demanding a vehicle nowadays. His father’s salary is not that much…because of his son’s fighting daily, his father is forced to provide him with a vehicle. And college-going students are going for 4-wheelers. That too BMWs! If he is a son of an IAS officer or a minister, they are going for BMWs and Ferraris. That is what is forcing their parents to indulge in corruption.
Again, from India: People are indulging in corruption because of consumerism – I want my iPod, my dress, my accessories. It has become a mode of self-aggrandisement.
Another respondent called it ‘technology-driven corruption‘.
From Nigeria: We are in a materialistic world where people are getting desperate by the day; they want to make it by becoming rich, so the moment they are given a position, what first comes to their mind is what they can make of it.
Another from Nigeria: People engage in corruption because they want to satisfy [materialistic] needs, expectations and pressures.
In both countries, respondents argued that in the past, things were different. Flaunting wealth used to be seen to be bad behaviour, but now it is positively encouraged. Messages from a range of different sources encourage displays of wealth and success through branding. What this has led to, according to respondents, is that nowadays people brag about corruption to show off how important they are. How much of a bribe you can command, or how much you’ve been able to pay to secure a service, tells people something about how successful you are.
In both countries religion and religious organisations were seen as part of the problem more than as part of the solution. From birth to death, and with everything in between, religious rituals were highlighted by respondents in both countries as being excuses for more consumption and displaying of wealth, with less and less thought being given to the spiritual significance of such rituals.
Again, voices from the fieldwork:
From India: Religion has also become one of the sources of income. You become a God man or a God woman and exploit the sentiments of the public.
You cannot get a work executed in Tirupati without giving bribes there. So, all these religious persons we talk about sitting on top of the hill, being good human beings to everyone, they are not. For them, ’I pray to God’ and ’I am corrupt’ are two separate issues.
From Nigeria: If you are Brother Good in the church – you know how to pray well, regularly attend church services, even clean the church – but if you don’t bring money to the church, your pastor will not recognise you. But when you are able to bring in money, nobody will care to know where you got it from.
The religious leaders are preaching prosperity in such a way that people are tempted to indulge in corrupt practices so that their names are mentioned in the church bulletin.
Similar responses came from both countries and from all of the religious traditions under study – Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, reflecting a general feeling of malaise and decline from the respondents. Again, all blamed largely on the perceived need to be seen to be part of the globalised consumer culture.
When I went back to my hotel room after the seminar, I viewed a video that a friend of mine from the RaD programme, Dr Nida Kirmani, had posted on her Facebook wall.
Have you picked your jaws up off the ground yet? Remind me why this isn’t corruption?
All around the world, people make money off of misery all the time, and can justify their actions to themselves very easily. If I didn’t do it, someone else would. It has nothing to do with me, it’s just the system that we all live with. Why shouldn’t I get rich too? I could provide theories to try to explain this (which I do of course in academic publications), but what strikes me is that the responses from our fieldwork could easily describe the economic crisis. A great big global binge of spending, hedging, speculating, trading, charging, and all just to buy stuff. Nothing more, nothing less. Just stuff.
Viewing corruption in countries such as India and Nigeria along these lines makes it somewhat easier to understand, if just as unpalatable and destructive as our friend the trader here. As we all live well beyond our means, or else live off the sweat and misery of others, whether it’s funded by bribe or credit card or property equity or embezzlement or speculation on the foodstuffs that the poor require to survive, the ultimate outcome is still destruction. I may not be able to relate to the woman sitting behind a desk demanding a bribe for a service she is meant to provide for free, but I can certainly relate to the mother sitting behind a desk trying to figure out how to stop her children nagging her that all their friends have a Wii and why don’t they have a Wii. The social harm generated by accepting a bribe may be more direct, more personal, and more immediately harmful than putting that Wii on a credit card. But ultimately, we are all paying the price regardless.
In both countries, respondents argued that a version of ‘simple living, high thinking’ was a necessary antidote to this drive to consume. Only when we live within our means, consume only what we need, and consider the impact of our consumption on those around us, would the problem of corruption go away.
The current protests in India centred around Anna Hazare show how people are starting to fight back against corruption. What our own research suggests, however, is that bringing corruption to an end in many countries will require more than anger directed against the state, but also genuine self-reflection and the recognition that we are all caught up in this together. Harking back to Gandhi may be one way forward.
Are we ready to think of Gandhism as an anti-corruption strategy? How about in Goldman Sachs?

One thought on “Corruption, consumerism and conflict

  1. Thanks for this very interesting contribution. Fighting corruption is harder than at the first look… I like your conclusion that it may start with a genuine self-reflection and the recognition that we are all caught up in this together.

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