What is CORRUPTION

(A humble attempt to explain a topic of a trillion words in a mere 750.)

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear

Corruption, according to Transparency International (TI), “is the abuse of power for private gain”. Academic study of the subject is relatively novel itself, but has gained significant momentum in the last two decades. Corruption, on the other hand, is as old as organized human life, and conceivably as old as government.

Transparency International’s Perceived Corruption Index (PCI) clearly shows that the extent of corruption in any given country is in direct proportion with its success and wealth. Countries highest up on the PCI are also the most socially fair. They are also exemplary regarding access to education, resources and gender equality. They are the most accepting and least racially prejudiced. They are mostly in Northern Europe.

Corruption in developing countries has grown considerably in the last three decades despite endless promises by governments to fight it. A recent study found that 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes over the past 30 years occurred in countries that are among the most corrupt in the world. The global construction industry was valued at US$7.5 trillion in 2011 and can projected to more than double in the next decade, and is considered to be one of the most corrupt segments of the global economy.

Foul play in the humanitarian sector is particularly damaging: aid supplies, water and medicine are stolen and sold on the black market, with that those most in need receiving significantly less (or none at all) of what they desperately need and of poor quality.

According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013, 27% of people worldwide paid a bribe last year. Countries where bribes are most prevalent include Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cameroon, India, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Palestine, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Uganda, where more than 50% of people surveyed by TI paid bribes in the past 12 months. Corruption in Russia cost about $300 billion last year, 16% of its GDP.

The shady business of party politics, political favours and party financing is a hotbed for corruption everywhere, in countries rich and poor alike. Japan is among the least corrupt nations on the TI list, but corruption has nonetheless been a fixture of Japanese politics for some time. Just recently, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has refused to resign after a huge financial scandal erupted within his party, with allegations of illegal donations by construction tycoons to party dignitaries in return for contracts. In France, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), came under scrutiny for authorising a £270 million pay-out to a prominent supporter of the Sarkozy government when she was finance minister. There is also separate inquiry looking into whether Mr Sarkozy and Ms Legarde awarded Legion d’Honneur (France’s most prestigious civilian award) for political favours.

In many countries people accept small-scale corruption as a fact of life. In Hungary patients are expected to give doctors and nurses money in white envelopes. In Japan, American businesspeople are expected to provide “gifts” for access and quicker handling of their queries, both in their private and public affairs. There are many countries where people cheat on the tax returns without a second thought. Recent tax evasion scandals in the UK included such giants as Apple, Starbucks, Amazon and Vodafone, accused of using their unique positions of power and influence.

Nepotism, favouritism and cronyism are also forms of corruption, ones that TI does not measure, which plague countries higher up on the PI Corruption Index. University teaching positions are almost completely out of reach for those not from the appropriate families in Italy. Most of David Cameron’s aides attended the same four educational institutions (Eton, St. Paul’s, Oxford, Cambridge) and come from the same geographical and social background. They are also predominantly white men.

Corruption might be about money and the abuse of power but it also about social justice, quality of life and opportunities. More often than not it can be translated into numbers, currencies, backhanders, favours, and contracts – but not always. Often it is intangible and we do not even realise its presence. It is about privilege and access, too. It can take countless shapes and forms and affects everyone whose life, livelihood and happiness depend on authority of any kind. Corruption translates into human suffering and poverty, generates anger, destabilises societies and causes violent conflicts. It is omnipresent and omnipotent. It can exist in any country, culture, at any time, and under any form of government.

Urbanist Miracle, Manufactured (in Hackney)

WW$Many say the Royal Wedding Street Party on 29 April 2011 was the turning point. It was then that Wilton Way, this manufactured urban miracle in Hackney, just north of London Fields was declared the coolest place on earth. And ‘the place to go’ for a street party in London. In the Times; no less. By noon the street felt like the Reading-London commuter train at 8.32 on a Wednesday morning. There were street musicians and clowns; and lots and lots of cupcakes courtesy of the street’s brand new artisan, hand-made, organic, ethical (and bleedin’ expensive) bakery, Violet. There was plenty of wine, too, mainly sold in the street’s Borough Wines shop that had opened a week earlier. Allegedly, the singer-superstar Sophie Ellis-Bextor was seen wandering around in a white wedding dress. Though she might as well have been anyone and everyone else… There were no stars on Wilton Way that day, albeit many-many were wearing wedding dresses (and not all of them female, or for that matter, human).

The Royal Wedding Street Party supposed to have been a small gathering for the locals and local businesses. It turned out to be anything but. According to Corinna Pyke, PR and community organiser working with the shops of Wilton Way ”We did not mean to make a big fuss at all. Obviously, we were very surprised that it exploded like that. Literally. We just put out some long tables and benches. All the shops got involved, there was some decoration… Hackney Council did not see the need to help us, they thought it was only going to be a tiny street party of very little consequence. We did not advertise it much, only a few local papers wrote about it. We still don’t know how it happened. Word of mouth, probably.”

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This story is about Wilton Way, a previously crime ridden and derelict shopping street in Hackney, London. According to the locals it has been “sleepy shopping street” for as long as anyone can remember. But as Muriel Chatel, the owner of Borough Wines puts it, Wilton Way “is a magical place”. The trees are well, high, so high and so green, you cannot not notice. You can feel energy floating in the air. Or if this sounds too esoteric, let’s just say for some reason people like it there and want to move there, or the very least go back there as often and stay as long as possible.

The magic is probably due to the stream running under the street. It makes vegetation greener and trees grow high on Wilton Way and in its close proximity. Then one day not too long ago some people saw the magic floating around and opened a few shops that became cool; and more and more people wanted a piece of the action. So property prices that rose by roughly 30% as a result. A few new shops (and a pub and a café) on Wilton Way completely transformed the street and turned it into a cool hipster paradise of sorts. But it also remained a street of harsh contradictions, now more than ever. On the one hand, there are the “fancy shops” as some of the locals like to call them. These shops, like Wilton Cafe where a latte costs £2.20, are frequented by people of ‘certain social background’, mostly people who recently moved to the area. Like it or not, they tend to be white and middle class. They live in Victorian houses and like gardening. Yet there are 2 large council estates housed in concrete blocks on either end of the street. And of course, there is the William Hill betting office visited by the local Caribbean community. There is no two ways about it: miracles might occur on Wilton Way, but it is also a strange mix of social extremes.

Indeed, life in the street has changed beyond recognition in the last 3 years, on that most locals agree. There are a lot more people around (footfall, the shopkeepers call it), visitors coming from as far as westest of West London. The fact that it has happened in this particular locality is by no means an accident. London Fields is just around the corner and it experienced its own similar, albeit larger scale transformation a bit earlier. And Hackney in general, with its ‘hipsters’ and political activists has always attracted those who could turn an area ‘cool’. Never more than of late, either.

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All it took was an idea and half a decade. And lest we forget: a man with a plan. David McHugh had witnessed the rise and rise of Notting Hill in the late 1980s and he also saw its decline. He lived there for decades, took part in a variety of community projects and is still involved in running the Notting Hill Arts Club. He is not happy about what happened. “The film (Notting Hill) was the kiss of death, really. The place became way too cool and as a result too expensive. When an area is proclaimed to be the ‘hottest’ is the end of it all.” – says David. Something similar happened in a number of other areas of London. First a cheap, run-down, but charming area becomes ‘cool’ because interesting businesses and artists move there. In a short while it becomes fashionable and more and more people want to buy property in the area, thus property prices increase. Simultaneously, investors show up, there are renovations and so everything becomes more expensive. Property, food, coffee, rent… Eventually artists and those original “cool” businesses cannot afford the rent anymore.

Several areas in London went trough a similar transformation in the last 2 decades. Islington is a prime example, so is Camden. Notting Hill, according to David is a shadow of its former self. The Notting Hill antiques market is in danger of closing down and all the interesting shops and restaurants closed. “All landlords started seeing were pound signs and became only interested in ‘dolly’. They started charging obscene amounts in rent. – David says – Now there are only big branches of multi-national shops, high fashion and bankers’ wives selling cushions. The character, the fun, the buzz is gone.”

8 years ago David started looking for a new home and a place where he could ‘do’ things differently. He saw a positive example of how things can be done well in Marylebone High Street; which thanks to its landlords, the de Walden family managed to ‘avoid its fate’. The de Walden estate of course, has £2 billion worth of real estate in Central London, but thanks to their vision they managed to revitalise the “tired” shopping street that Marylebone High Street had been. “We wanted to create something that was different.” – Howard de Walden told the Daily Telegraph. Thus they invited businesses that were “different” from what you would see on an average high street. They came from “cool” places: from Borough Market, Notting Hill among others and the de Waldens decidedly preferred independent shops, not chains. They carefully chose their tenants and as the estate owns much of the street, they could guarantee that the rent would stay the same everywhere. The area was reborn and now the estate can charge higher prices for non-commercial property, while managing to keep the high street fresh and interesting. David McHugh had something similar in mind for Wilton Way, only on a smaller scale.

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“It took a while – says David – I moved here 8 years ago and it was a run down ex-shopping street with lots of closed shops. There was a betting shop and a corner shop and that was it.” Many shops were turned into flats, too. Over the years David and his business partner managed to acquire 3 shops on Wilton Way. As a first step two of the shops became pop-up galleries for a year. David asked Corinna Pyke for help; she had taken part in several other similar shop regeneration projects in Hackney. According to Corinna “The pop-ups were very important. They provided a transitional period. The shops were closed for a long time and with the pop-ups we gave them their original ‘meaning’ back. And people from elsewhere started coming here, too. It changed the perception of the street. Without the pop-ups, shops on Wilton Way probably would have been a lot less successful.”

The first “real” shop to open 3 and a half years ago was “The Other Side of the Pillow”, a vintage shop run by Henry Davies, an Australian and his Italian business partner Luciano Fabry. They sell shoes, clothing and all kinds of everyday objects. David also owns a café and a hairdresser in the street. There is a brand new pub, a wine shop and a bakery, all opened in the last two years. They all became success stories, people started flocking to Wilton Way.

This, in essence, is a success story. But obviously, there are many who talk about “segregation” and loaded questions” when it comes to those who do not or cannot take part in this resurrection. People living in the council estates, people who have lived in the area, but feel they have nothing in common with the new way of life represented in the street. “I have no business going there.” – said a local woman who lived in one of the estate blocks (she asked to remain anonymous). A sentiment echoed by many not living the “Hackney cool” lifestyle that now dominates the street.

Wilton Way will continue to shine brighter and brighter, there is little doubt about that. There are plans for more shops, a restaurant. Nuno Mendes, Michelin Star chef and quintessential East London fixture, who lives in a Wilton Way side street set up a supper club and would love to open a restaurant on Wilton Way. There are many others interested.

But, as Henry Davies of Wilton Way vintage shop “The Other Side of the Pillow” said “You can see the cool moving north. In Clapton, the are what was known “The Murder Mile” is the next big thing.” he said. Thus, there we have it. Wise men say every miracle ends after a day. Or a year. Even in Hackney.

Revolution as lifestyle choice

Quite a while ago, in another century I seem to recall a history lecture about Lenin running into serious trouble when he and his comrades were to conclude the revolution and create a fresh, new, different (Marxist/communist?) way to govern, to be, etc. It was then that the dust settled somewhat, but all was not done by any means. Lenin’s problem was that he more or less spent his life preparing for/plotting a revolution and when (lo and behold) it happened; and after a while he was… Should I say fucked (he was also rather sick with syphilis, which did not help, either)? He wanted to go “all the way”. He could not stop; he had no idea how. No concept of stopping until the final solution (pun intended and v sorry to those who find this offensive, but could not help myself). Along came Stalin and a “nice”, “convenient” dictatorship of the communist kind. And Lenin died soon.

In case of Hungary, we are faced with the opposite problem. We have people willing to take the streets, students willing to occupy university buildings. Because this is what is happening now. Richard and his friends of HaHa (Student Network, an independent, self-governed student organisation at the heart of it all)  are occupying rooms and lecture halls in universities all over Hungary. There was a “hunger march” (click for article), a demonstration of a few thousand people marching to the gigantic Gothic/majestic building that is the Hungarian Parliament to express their desperation and unhappiness with how badly things have gone. But no-one is a professional, no-one is willing to take it as far as it takes and most of it is lost in translation. I would say, thank god for that, as revolution is a messy, often bloody business. But then again, no-one is interested in simple student protests (despite my hysterical attempts to attract attention, mind). And anyway, has much ever been achieved or changed radically otherwise? Yes, but not often. Or quickly. Facts are brutal, cruel creatures, I say.

In the mean time Hungary’s economy shrank by 2.7% (click for FT blog post and see how bad things have got) in the last quarter of 2012. Which the PM and all Hungarians’ kind leader Viktor Orbán blames on the EU and the credit crunch. Again. In the mean time György Matolcsy (the Minister of National Economy) and the government PR machine talk about a new,  “brave” use of “unorthodox” economic tools others (ie. “non-geniuses”) do not understand. Cos’ we are special, different and oh so misunderstood, ‘cos we are Hungarian, you know. In the mean time IMF talks of a bail out came to an abrupt halt. Again. Let us not mention the other shite (and there are lots) – the quick chipping away of democracy, a government getting rid of checks and balances, the corruption and moral decay etc. It is the economy, too. I know, Hitler’s Germany was is pretty good shape economically, but still. Long story short, Hungary is going nowhere and very fast.

It has been many a months since I expressed hope and enthusiasm over the student protests in Hungary. I so do not want to say I was wrong. But I spent 2 weeks in Hungary since and it put it all into context. Life goes on, you know. People have to live. Words are lost in the cacophony of everyone talking at the same time. And, boy, do everyone has something to say and no-one listens. Words have no power, they carry no weight. Actions have no consequences. And the good citizens of Hungary have to find a way to pay their bills and feed their children; not to figure out how to scream louder than anyone else. Revolution, as a lifestyle choice is not a viable career. Also, revolution usually comes about after several years of extreme hardship, possibly famine and oppression. Want, hunger, determination also play a part. Yes, many people experience extreme hardship in Hungary today, but there are concessions. There are always concessions. Lots of words and promises, but in a country where everyone wants to belive them, because for the most part it is a country of people want to just be left alone and have it easy and have someone figure it out. They are used to a little this and that from governments wanting to buy their vote a year before elections. There are many willing to sell their soul for a dollar and never look back. Or simply shut up and conform.

So, yes, students demonstrate, they discuss, debate and refuse to align with politics and political parties of any kind. They occupy rooms in university buildings and say they will not give up, until the government does not satisfy their demands - the 6 points (opens great essay analysing of the situation). They have very little to lose, but they are not professional revolutionaries, like Lenin was. Revolutionaries often end up dead, mind you and that’s when power-hungry bastards take the stage. Hungarian student demonstrators do have a life, they have choices. They will most probably know when to stop. Whether they will achieve anything is a question to be answered sometime in the (possibly near) future.

An old(er) story still… Interesting…

Hungary Tobacco Market Reshuffle Roils Public (link to Wall Street Journal article)

“Hungary’s move to drastically restrict the number of outlets selling tobacco caused an uproar, with critics saying the government has restricted access to information about the way tobacco licenses were distributed.

Hungary has made tobacco retailing a state monopoly and granted 20-year concessions to run tobacco shops for a flat fee to individuals selected mostly on the basis of the applicants’ business plan. Exact criteria for judging the business plans haven’t been made public.”

Read it and weep

Hungary, The Public Relations Offensive

Link to Guest Post in Paul Krugman’s New York Times Blog by Princeton University’s Kim Lane Shapelle (Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values as well as Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs )