It may sound odd, but it is likely to work. End bribery by legalising it.
If you find the proposal preposterous, you may want to continue reading. The idea is to legalise bribery, but only partially, i.e., giving bribes should be legalised, but accepting bribes should remain a crime.
For those who live in South Asia, where bribery is ubiquitous, it is almost impossible to escape it. Even when you seek a service that you are legally entitled to, such as a connection for gas or electricity, many a palms have to be greased before the blades of your fan will start turning. In such cases of ‘harassment bribes’ giving bribe should be deemed a legitimate activity. This is necessary to separate the interests of the briber (bribe giver) and the bribee (bribe taker). Once the bribe is paid to obtain a legally entitled service, the interests of the two transacting agents differ because the briber would have the service she needed, and given the legal cover, she may now be willing to report the incident to authorities for an action against the bribee.
Dr. Kaushik Basu, a professor of economics at Cornell University, is the man behind the idea. He is also the designate chief economist of the World Bank. Casual reviewers of his bribery paper erroneously assumed that Prof Basu was arguing to legalise corruption. They are mistaken. Professor Basu has in fact posited a novel idea of separating the interests of the briber from bribee only in the case of harassment bribes. Those who are forced into bribing to get what is legitimately theirs are not criminals. Even my mother had to bribe the staff in the education department to get her pension. Retiring after decades of service as a professor, she waited for months to have her pension started. My family is not without means or connections, but it hardly mattered. The bribery mafia is deep rooted in Pakistan and thus no one was able to help. In the end, she paid a clerk to receive her pension. The clerk’s daughters were my mother’s former students!
What’s up with the Indian economists?
Professor Basu is one of several accomplished Indian economists who are recognised globally as thought leaders. Professor Amartya Sen at Harvard University, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati at Columbia University, Professor Raghuram Rajan at the University of Chicago, and Professor Abhijit Banerjee at MIT are examples of several Indian economists whose research is celebrated and respected throughout the world. Professor Rajan has served as the ‘chief economist’ at the IMF where he was able to influence macroeconomic policies in several countries. Professor Bhagwati is a foremost expert in globalisation. Professor Banerjee is a leading scholar in poverty studies. Professor Sen, who received the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, has influenced several streams of research in economics.
One wonders why so many economists from India, especially Bengalis, have been able to rise to the top in economics. Professors Sen, Basu, and Banerjee are Bengalis. And while Dr. Muhammad Yunus is not an Indian national, he is a Bangladesh-based economist who received the Nobel Peace prize for his pioneering work in micro finance.
Unlike the rest of South Asia, social scientists have fared much better in India. Economists particularly are held in great esteem by the Indian masses and governments and have been entrusted with the prestigious responsibility of policy making. India has continued to be well-served by some brilliant economists. The current Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, himself an economist, headed the Planning Commission in India during 1985-87. Before becoming the Prime Minister. Dr. Singh served as the chief economic advisor, the governor of the Indian Reserve Bank, and the finance minister in Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s cabinet. Professor Basu until recently has served as the chief economic advisor to the Ministry of Finance in India. As Professor Basu heads to the World Bank, Professor Raghuram Rajan is taking over the chief economic advisor’s role in his place.
On the other side of the Wahga border in Pakistan, nuclear scientists and metallurgists focused on weaponisation, instead attained the celebrity status. The masses and the governments in Pakistan have failed to recognise the need for a larger role for social scientists. Instead of economists, engineers and metallurgists took over policymaking in Pakistan. Consider that even Pakistan’s Planning Commission in the recent past was steered by engineers without any intervention from social scientists, especially the economists.
Recognising Pakistani economists
It will be erroneous to assume that Pakistan has not produced leading economists. The most celebrated name amongst Pakistani economists is that of Dr. Mahbub ul Haq who was instrumental in devising the human development index. The first Human Development Report was published in 1990 and since then, the annual publication has been recognised globally as an alternative and more holistic metric of development than the gross national product. Today more than a hundred countries have established their own human development centres, following in the intellectual tradition of Dr. Haq.