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“Really? I haven’t seen any corruption here,” I told my friend, a westerner working in a Chisinau university, when he made a passing comment about how many students paid rather than studied their way to degrees.

“Of course you haven’t,” he replied. “You’ve only been here a few weeks. Corruption’s a relatively recent phenomenon in Moldovan culture. It’s only really taken hold since the collapse of communism. And you’ll find that they’re still quite embarrassed about admitting to it.”

This was in stark contrast to the place where I’d worked before coming to Moldova, the West African state of Cameroon. There, corruption was brazen and I saw money change hands at least once a day, usually between long-suffering taxi drivers and the corpulent, drunken road police whose only role in life, it seemed, was to sit at checkpoints and extort money for beer. It was widely assumed that at least half the money allocated for public works projects such as road building would find its way into officials’ personal bank accounts, and from there into the conspicuous building of luxurious new private houses. I knew civil servants who collected a healthy salary despite doing practically no work for it. Parents had to bribe the headmasters of government schools to get their children admitted. Getting a driving license entailed little more than paying cash to an official. I met people who’d been imprisoned for failing to give a policeman a demanded bribe. I was once arrested myself, for the “crime” of failing to carry a document I wasn’t required to carry, and threatened with a month in jail unless I paid the equivalent of 400 lei.

Moldova seemed like a haven of honesty and straight-dealing in comparison. In three months, I haven’t seen any first-hand evidence of corruption at all. No policemen have arrested me and threatened to lock me up. Maxi-taxis and trolleybuses are not stopped every few miles by gun-toting, inebriated gendarmes demanding to see every passenger’s identification card. And Moldovan friends haven’t struck up cynical and embittered conversations with me about the subject, as they did in Africa. And yet the latest Corruption Perceptions Index from the anti-corruption group Transparency International (www.transparency.org) lists Moldova as more corrupt than Cameroon. (Moldova is joint-93rd of 102 participants, rated equally as corrupt as Uganda, while Cameroon comes in at joint-89th. Finland tops the list, perceived to have the least corruption, while Bangladesh has the most). How can this be?

Since that conversation I’ve made a point of asking for corruption stories. As many Welcome readers will be far better versed in this subject than I am, as an outsider armed only with a few recently-garnered anecdotes, I’m wary of setting myself up as any kind of expert. But the picture I have is roughly this:

Students can and do bribe their way to better exam results. This problem is more prevalent in state-run universities than private ones. It can be implicit, in the form of “presents” of cognac to favourite teachers. Or it can be blatant, with direct handing over of cash, or classmates clubbing together to pay the examiners. Some teachers are known to be susceptible to bribery, while others aren’t.

(I certainly don’t judge them or blame them, by the way. University teachers are paid shockingly low salaries. What else are they supposed to do?)

Some doctors, too, are amenable to under-the-counter payments. While you can choose to wait for an operation and get it eventually, you’ll have it done quicker if you’re able to give a gift. As for policemen, I’m told, they generally won’t arrest you if you haven’t done anything wrong – as happened routinely in Cameroon – but if you’re nicked for going through a red traffic light, say, you can usually opt to pay a small informal fine to escape the larger formal one.

I have no idea whether these stories are true or not. All I can say is that these are the stories I’ve heard when I’ve asked. What about corruption at higher levels of government? I don’t know – I haven’t heard anything about that. But presumably Transparency International has.

When I ask about corruption in Moldova, the question’s often turned around: what about corruption in my home country, Britain?

The answer is that corruption doesn’t happen much, but only because there are legitimate ways to make money talk. Take education. As far as I’m aware, students simply can’t improve their exam results by giving gifts to teachers or bribing examiners. It just doesn’t happen. And if it was found happening, newspapers would make a fuss and the teachers involved would lose their jobs.

However, students with rich parents still generally end up with the best education. Money can’t buy you a degree, but a well-placed donation to a prestigious Oxbridge college can cause your child’s application for admission to be looked upon more favourably. That’s an extreme case, but the principle runs throughout the system. Pre-university, the more money you have, the more expensive a private school you can afford for your offspring. And as the British government forces students to pay an increasingly higher proportion of their tuition and living costs, university study becomes a less enticing option for children from the working class. More money definitely equals a better education in Britain, but the route from the one to the other is subtler than degrees-for-cash.

The same is true of healthcare. I asked a British doctor friend the other day about corruption in the National Health Service, and he said there isn’t any that he knows of. But why should there be, when private health care is such a big industry? If you don’t fancy waiting months for an operation on the NHS, there’s no need to bribe a doctor – you can simply call up one of the many private healthcare providers, quote your credit card details and jump the queue. More money equals better and faster healthcare, but the means are entirely legal.

And the same goes for justice. Maybe I’m naive, but if you’re a rich man I don’t think you can slip cash to a British judge and expect to be let off a charge. What you can do is use your money to hire the most brilliant lawyers, and the outcome is likely to be much the same. There have been a couple of high-profile cases recently of major political figures ending up in jail – former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, and renowned author Jeffrey Archer – but, by and large, possessing money and status is a distinct advantage in battling your way through the legal system. You need to be very obviously crooked – like Aitken and Archer – to get locked up.

What about politics? Once again, explicit corruption will get discovered by newspapers and splashed on front pages until the minister in question resigns. New Labour’s master strategist Peter Mandelson, for instance, has twice been forced to quit Tony Blair’s cabinet after suggestions of impropriety and favouritism that nonetheless fell well short of outright corruption. If a minister were proved to have accepted cash for directly changing government policy, there would be a scandal.

And yet essentially the same process – cash for policy changes – is an entirely legal part of the political process when it’s done via our political parties. The Labour party was traditionally funded by trades unions but increasingly attracts donations from big business, and its policies have changed to match. The Conservatives have always been bankrolled primarily by wealthy individuals and corporations. It would be barmy to think that anyone would give significant amounts of money to political parties if they didn’t feel their donation entitled them to wield some influence over the party’s policy. Think of how many of George W Bush’s decisions could be linked – by a sufficiently cynical mind, of course – to the financial backing his campaign received from major oil companies. The situation isn’t quite as bad in Britain, but it could be a lot better – which is why there is strong support for the idea of state funding of political parties and the banning of private political donations.

Britain comes 10th in Transparency’s ranking of 102 countries – rating as marginally more corrupt than Canada, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and a smidgeon cleaner than Australia, Norway and Switzerland. But these are countries playing in a different league – the premiership of non-corrupt nations, if you like, while Moldova and Cameroon scrap it out in the third division. Was my friend at the university right that the culture of corruption is relatively new in Moldova, and this is why it’s not as immediately visible as it was in Cameroon? If so, it would be a great shame to see it become embedded. Endemic corruption, which engenders cynicism and hopelessness among the general public, is a scourge of Africa.

But if Moldova does manage to nip corruption in the bud and go the way of Britain rather than Cameroon, the gains will only be superficial. Money will still buy you a quicker operation, a better education for your children, political influence and improved chances of winning court cases. It’s just that you won’t have to resort to illicit back-handers, because the way you use your money will be on the balance sheet and legally approved.

By Andrew Wright

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