Syria and the C-word

Endemic corruption is a problem that Arabs grumble about endlessly, though it rarely gets analysed in much detail. All credit, then, to the Syria Comment blog for tackling this touchy subjecthead-on.

"Though Syria is no exception," it says, "one cannot but be struck by how widespread bribery is at every facet of life in the country". 

Bribery is used to get ahead in securing basic government services. It is used to gain a preferential treatment in the armed services. It is used to get government loans. It is used to lower import duties at customs. It is used to wave traffic violations. It is used at passport issuing offices. Indeed, one is hard pressed to think of a single place where it cannot be used.

At one level there are the big players who rake off millions, but then there is the "petty" corruption where countless minor officials take bribes to supplement their often meagre incomes:

Most public sector employees and civil servants make between SYP 7,000 and SYP 16,000 a month ($150-$345 range). The majority of these workers also happen to be less well educated and have large families. Having at least four children or more is common. A median salary of $250 per month therefore needs to support a total of six family members on average. Due to religious reasons and lack of both education and skills, most wives cannot support the family income. The majority of these people rent their homes for an average of $130 a month. 

This leaves $120 for six people to live on for a month. Even with the generous subsidies programme in place, this is nearly impossible to do. Even if this family decides to live on falafel sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it will be broke before the month ends. The head of the household must look for other means to augment his miserly income. Most work second jobs. Most also accept bribes from private citizens.

The article has also provoked some interesting comments from readers. One discusses the knock-on effects of introducing speed cameras on the streets of Damascus. This has dramatically reduced the numbers of speeding drivers and also reduced the opportunities for traffic policemen to take money on the side. As a result, the police are said to be exploring other ways of supplementing their lost income.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 August 2009.