Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Pain of Dishonesty

I hesitate to even breach this subject on my blog. But I choose to, because it poses a significant challenge to peace and more specifically to justice in this country. I have witnessed a couple instances recently, which I feel should be exposed for what they are, but I fear the consequences of exposing them in this public forum. It will suffice to say, that what I am about to describe runs deeper than just these instances and poses a serious problem to the future development of Bangladesh.

I do not believe that this problem is engrained in the Bangladeshi psyche, nor does it make Bangladeshis in any way bad people; for all of the things that bother me in this country, the people are incredibly friendly. The problem is systematic, and as such, it will prove a challenging foe to overcome quickly. It manifests itself on a larger scale as corruption, a word all too commonly heard here in Bangladesh, but I have been witness to it on a smaller scale in my everyday life.

Why, I ask myself, can people not be honest? I know they are poor, this is a poor country, and they need money. And I am entirely willing to give a small amount more from my wealth to help as many people as possible. I never attempt to hoard my allowances, and I do not give anyone less than they deserve. I try my very best to allow each and every person an equal opportunity to receive from my wealth. I am not in a place to know who needs the money more than others, only God knows that, and I quite happily grant Her that knowledge.

Regularly, especially in Dhaka, people attempt to receive as much as they possibly can for any service they provide. And drivers are no exception. Taking public transit in Dhaka is a hassle, and as everywhere, there are honest people and there are dishonest people. If I haggle a price for a ride (illegal as that may be), I am willing to pay for that ride. Officially, I have been told, any driver asking for more than the price shown on the meter, is breaking the law, and it is in fact considered a bribe. And this happens regularly. As a foreigner I rarely, rarely, have a driver who is so honest that they will give me the meter rate. And even if they do, I tip them extra because I understand that the meter rates do not provide enough money for them to support their families. But these men (women don't drive) are honest. And I respect them for that, and I thank them profusely for being honest.

Their are of course others who are dishonest, who ask for bribes, and try to charge as high as they possibly can. Very often I find myself paying an extra 50% or higher to take public transit in the city. But even among the dishonest men, there are those who simply ask for more and take what they are given, there are those who arrive and ask for an extra few Taka as bribe, there are those who refuse to give change, and then there are those who tell intricate lies to get more money as a bribe.

I was lucky enough to experience these liars on a regular basis on my last trip to Dhaka. The first pales in comparison to the second. I was taking a baby taxi from Dhaka University to the Guest house and asked the driver why he would only accept a large bribe. He explained that there was a traffic jam, and that the time wasted would mean that he would lose money if he gave me the meter price. I accepted this story, not wanting to assume the man was dishonest. We then proceeded to return without any traffic jam whatsoever, and I paid the man almost 150% the meter rate. I was very unhappy with his deceit and dishonesty and told him so. I explained very nicely that I was going to give him the agreed on price but that he was a liar and was being very dishonest.

The second instance makes the first but a pebble on the beach. It makes a bump, but it pales in comparison to this rock. The man was asking for a large bribe, and no other drivers wanted to go where we were hoping to go. I had explained to him that the last driver had lied to me and I wanted to make sure he wasn't lying to me about the traffic as well. So we were off, and the driver was lucky that we waited for 15 minutes at a light as the police let the traffic going the other direction through. The light changed 6 times while we waited, and we were at the front of the line. So I had agreed to pay him the price we had agreed on in a traffic jam. I had no problems with this. We arrived at what he said was the place I wanted to go, when I realized he had taken me to the wrong park. So I asked him where we were, he told me the name of the place I was going. I told him it wasn't right and that he needed to go to the other place. He agreed, but first said that it was a kilometre away and he asked for a larger bribe. I told him I would give him a little extra because I did not want a fight. He promptly drove 400 meters and once again stopped, nowhere near where I had told him to go. He turned off the vehicle and I was very unhappy (to put it lightly). I told him I was not giving him more than originally agreed on, because I was in the wrong place, and he had lied to me. He then refused to give me my change, and held me asking for more money. I felt so violated that I told him calmly (a gift of God) that he had taken me to the wrong place, he had lied to me, he was a dishonest person, he had stolen my money and that he could be put in jail for any of the things he was doing to me. I told him he would not receive any more money, and that I hoped he would think a little bit about the type of person he is. That man received 100% more than the ride was worth.

Now those stories speak of dishonesty, which is not a characteristic of most Bangladeshis, but it does create a large problem when mixed with a culture of bribery. I was the unfortunate recipient of two very dishonest men who lied to me, took advantage of me, and stole from me. And it primarily caused me pain, more pain than the person who stole my money and phone. Because these people were using very low techniques of lying and cheating the trust of a customer. There followed an untellable story which caused me to think even more about the case of corruption and bribery in this culture.

I see no answer to this problem, only questions. How can something so rampant, from top to bottom, be changed? When the system is the only system people know, how is it possible to develop a system of righteous and honest dealings, taking into consideration the need for money to support a family? It pains me to see this side of the culture. The side of Bangladeshi culture books speak of, but one which I hoped was shrinking, but it is increasingly rearing its ugly head at me. I sincerely hope that somehow this culture, this system, moves beyond what is presently known, into an honest and strong system providing justice for its citizens.

Paining for Peace.
Steve.

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