I am a medium-sized business owner from the U.S. and we want to do business in a very corrupt country in Africa. This is a very difficult proposition in any case, but it is made more difficult by the various “facilitation fees” we know we will have to pay both to get our business operating and to continue to process paperwork and move goods through customs. While I don’t like the idea of “bribes,” I do think the business would be good both for our company and for the people we would serve. As I have read the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, I don’t believe we would be violating any laws by paying these fees. What do you think on the ethical front?
Trying to Participate in Globalization
Your sensitivity to this issue is laudable, as bribery undermines democratic reform and threatens economic development. You are also wise not to simply adopt a stance of “cultural relativism.” Paying these fees without further thought does little to dissuade similar practices and expectations for such payments in the future.
One important item to consider, however, is the fact that what may look like a bribe from a Western perspective may or may not be one. In some instances, facilitation fees are the equivalent of paying more for first class in our culture. You can still do business, but it may take a while longer (in some cases, much longer!) to get things done.
We should also be careful to distinguish between a true bribe, a gift, and a tip. They all look the same on the surface, but serve very different purposes depending on the culture. Furthermore, income distribution takes place quite differently in other parts of the world. While this fact alone does not justify paying them, civil servants in some countries are paid very poor wages, and part of the compensation comes in the form of the facilitation fees you mention.
Your best course of action at this point is to get to know the culture deeply. Some questions to consider include: What do such payments mean? Are they truly bribes or something else? Can you avoid paying them and still get things done in a timely manner? Are foreigners expected to pay them?
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University
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