Friday, February 11, 2011
Is it wrong to pay a bribe to get something done?
That was the dilemma we faced when we moved to Spain’s Canary Islands in 1959, and it will be your dilemma today if you travel to a third-world country. At first, we refused to pay anyone anything extra, not even the mailman—which meant mail delivery was quite sporadic! Fortunately, others with more experience in the land of Generalissimo Franco set us right.
“Here’s the rule,” we were told. “If you have to bribe someone to do what he is supposed to do anyway, go ahead and pay it. But do not bribe someone to cover an illegal action, such as importing a prohibited book or magazine.”
Some years later I was asked to help a company from the UK get a huge shipment of prefabricated houses off a dock on the island of Lanzarote. The shipment had been on the dock for SIX MONTHS. All efforts at getting the signed and stamped permit had failed. I was called in as a last hope.
First, I went to the bank to withdraw some cash. Then I headed out to the main dock to see Pancho, the local official who had to stamp and sign a permit before anything could move. He worked in a tiny shack that was similar in appearance to an outdoor toilet but slightly larger—perhaps 6 x 6 feet. Our brief exchange was in Spanish but I’ll give you an approximate English translation.
Me: “Hello,” I said, stepping up to the open door, “I’m here to clear the shipment for the prefabs from the UK.”
Pancho: “Permit’s not ready yet,” he said, sorting documents on a high shelf.
Me: (stepping back about four feet and raising my voice) “I’ll bet you that shipment never comes off this dock!”
Pancho: (Looking me in the eye for the first time) “How much will you bet?”
Me: “Ten thousand pesetas.”
Pancho: “Where’s your money?”
I pulled a roll of 500-peseta bills out of my pocket and held them up.
Pancho: (Quickly grabbing a form from a hook on the wall, stamping it, signing it, and handing it to me while snatching the money from my hand) “You lost your bet!”
Elapsed time from “Hello” to “lost your bet!”--less than three minutes.