Thursday, March 17, 2005


"A man is only as faithful as his options."

-- Chris Rock

Something struck me the other day when I read about Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's oil company in Iraq, overcharging some of their projects to the princely sum of a hundred some odd million bucks. (It was a baseball that struck me, actually, and a hard one, too. Note to self: Keep your head up more.)

It reminded me of an incident at work, where I proofread a letter directed to a certain government agency that was in cahoots with a local photocopy shop in town; the government department submitted an invoice to my NGO that stated that the photocopies had cost sixty dollars, when they should only have cost around thirty -- they'd pocketed the rest, and neglected to mention that fact in the fake receipt they had the shop write up (with a promise of future business, I'm sure.)

A hundred million bucks in Iraq; thirty bucks in Cambodia. But who's counting, really.

And yet there it is, the sly, not-so-subtle way that corruption works. You pocket the change when nobody's looking. You overcharge photocopies by ten, fifteen cents a sheet; in Iraq, you overcharge an oil pipeline by ten, fifteen thousand a pipe. That's how it's all done -- this siphoning away of money from one person's pocket to another. In stages.

The current cover of Time/Asia highlights an upcoming book by economist Jeffrey Sachs, the guru for ending poverty in the new millenium. He's obviously highly qualified, knows his stuff much better than I do, but still -- I don't trust the validity of his theory.

His solution to ending poverty is more bucks -- more bucks, more bucks, more bucks. You pump the money into these developing countries, spend it judiciously, and change will happen; change will emerge.

All well and good. But how do we do that? In the Time article, he briefly sidesteps the problem of corruption, stating that countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan are enormously corrupt, and look how well they've done, and they're proof that this excuse of 'corruption' is little more than protracted, emphatic whining, and so what we need is more, extended, committed action by the world's elite. We need more of your cash, in other words.

I've no doubt that the central tenet of his theory is true. Just because a country is corrupt doesn't mean that it can't progress and chip away at the global scourge that is poverty.

But his reasoning is flawed. It's like saying that smoking is good for you because my 105 year old grandfather has smoked six packs of cigarettes a day since he was 11, and he's still alive, so there you go.

The exceptions do not prove the rule in this case.Just because some countries have gotten around it, that doesn't mean that others will. Or can.

I admit: I'm a novice at this stuff, this economist stuff, this poverty stuff. I know not what I speak.

But I do know what I've seen firsthand here in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world. I know the number of Mercedes Benzes I see barrelling around the capital. I know the reports I've checked that highlight the teeny-tiny discrepancies between what something should have cost, and what the government has said it cost.

Twenty bucks here. Forty bucks there. That's the Cambodian style.

Fifteen thousand here, thirty thousand there. That's the how the big boys at Halliburton do it.

No doubt, Jeffrey Sachs knows more than I will ever know. But it seems like he bops in and out of a country, visits the poor villages, thinks up solutions, writes them down, then implores the world to take action.

More money is the answer, yes.

But people are people. And new clothes need to be bought. And school tuition has to be paid. And that Landrover looks very, very tempting. And that summer cottage in Maine, the one near Kennebunkport, is a bit pricey.

Humans are humans are humans. When no one's looking, they do what they do.

When examining how to rationally, sensibly eliminate poverty, to deny the ramifications of that simple statement is to enter into realm of eternal academia, where the answers are clear and pristine, and the day-to-day reality of implementation are someone else's problem, to be solved on another, distant day.

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