Government “Corruption” Actually Starts in Preschool

North Africa and the Middle East

In the Middle East and North Africa today, there is a lot of talk about “stamping out” corruption.  Yet what no one seems to be talking about is where that “corruption” actually begins.  It starts before children are even five years old.

bribes, baksheesh


Recently a fellow middle-aged  teacher told me about a five-year-old preschooler who threatened her.  When she told him he had to follow the school rules on the playground or sit in “time out,” he told her that if she didn’t let him do what he wanted, that he would bring his father and get her fired!  (She told him, “Go ahead and bring him today, I’m waiting right now to speak to him!”  Then he didn’t know how to react.)  One can only presume that the child is copying his own father’s behavior with others.

One of the causes of corruption is that Middle Eastern and North African cultures are “in-group” societies.

Members of  in-groups are treated preferentially  to those in out-groups.  From the age of three, in nursery schools, children make the friends they will keep throughout their school years, and often, throughout their lives.

Making new friends tends to be difficult and a slow              process in societies which have in-groups (similar to “cliques” in the West).  Friendship groups tend to be closed, and others often sabotage budding friendships.   Over-and-over I have seen a new child begin to make a friend, only to have the other friends of that person become jealous and proprietary.

Adults in Middle Eastern Societies generally continue with the same behavior.  What this means for the larger society is that a person feels obligated to do everything to help their family members and close friends (the in-group) while ignoring and/or excluding those in the out-groups.  So, in these societies people are NEVER treated equally–their treatment depends, instead, on their relationship to the individual in question.

Fast-forwarding into upper elementary school and beyond, cheating is rampant.  No matter how much schools and teachers talk about cheating as being wrong, it is rampant because it’s more important to “help'”your in-group members than it is to be honest.

By rampant cheating I mean somewhere in excess of 80%.  People who do not cheat when everyone else is are generally NOT admired by other students; they are often distrusted.

Fast-forward again to adult life.  To get anything done in terms of obtaining necessary documents for business or life, often “wheels need to be greased.”  Those people who are dishonest and irresponsible never hold themselves accountable for their behavior; instead, their idea is to find a more powerful friend who can intercede on their behalf and “undo” whatever problem they have gotten themselves into.

Paying small bribes to get documents

Now that democratic fever is sweeping the Middle Eastern and North African regions, I hear all the adults talking about stamping out corruption.  But the question remains HOW to do it  when it is so entrenched in the culture with the expectations that one is obligated to help other in-group members however one can, and when those cultural obligations supercede any considerations of honesty?

Saudi Arabia

We, as foreign teachers, try to reach the kids, through classroom discussions and penalties for dishonest behavior.  But that work and classroom discussion is often undone by people at home, friends in society, relatives, and anyone else who has a vested interest in the system as it is.  It’s all about “not getting caught” and NOT about “it’s morally wrong.”


–Lynne Diligent


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6 Responses to “Government “Corruption” Actually Starts in Preschool”

  1. Judy Says:

    When does a tip or a commission become a bribe? When does networking or a personal recommendation become nepotism? I’ve had this discussion myself with those from cultures we consider corrupt and it’s very hard to draw the line. In the West we think we know the answers, but we don’t. Very interesting post!

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      These are good questions, Judy. Networking becomes nepotism when it involves hiring and RETAINING or promoting friends and family members BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE rather than BECAUSE OF THEIR QUALIFICATIONS.

      In the Middle East, whenever a company wants to hire someone new, generally they ask current employees if they already know someone who might be a good candidate. Those people come in for interviews. If someone can be hired from that group, they are. The result is that there are tightly-knit “in-groups” in the workplace, which have been established for many years before coming into the workplace. One advantage to this is that the people then cooperate and work well together. Those who are not in “in-groups” do not tend to share information, cooperate, or work well together. In in-group societies, nepotism in this way tends to “work.” The downside of nepotism is that sometimes family members are hired who are lazy or incompetent. No matter how well others do their job, they will never get a raise for their good work, and the incompetent family member (such as at the front desk in a hotel) does work that displeases all the clients. Yet, he will never be fired, because he is a family member.

      There is a very clear difference between a tip and a bribe. A tip is paid AFTER a service, to thank someone for good work. A bribe is paid IN ADVANCE of a service, in order to ensure the job actually gets done. We recently ran into a situation where in order to get my daughter’s national ID card, a number of bribes had to be paid to a number of small administrators. One day, my daughter had to go alone with the maid to an administration. My husband told her to put a bill of paper money in the folder, so that when the administrator opens it, he will see it (and apparently will usually take it as he processes the papers, understanding it was for him). My daughter was shocked when her dad told her this. They went to the administration, and the man processed the papers and did not take the money. It was a pleasant surprise. I concluded it was because she was so young, but maybe he was more honest than others, who knows? We were all surprised.

  2. Judy Says:

    I agree about the distinction between tip and bribe, although for repeat service, it can become more of a grey area as you have created an expectation.

    As for nepotism, what you describe it is alive and well in major corporations worldwide. Time and again I have seen a new senior exec arrive in a company and then proceed to lay-off or re-assign existing employees to make way for a new team of people he’s worked with before. While the truly incompetent are not retained, to my mind this does smack of nepotism even though they aren’t family members.

    You are right though that the level of corruption in the countries you’re talking about is far in excess of this and is a major barrier to their progress. It is deeply embedded in the culture and will take generations to eradicate.

  3. Lynne Diligent Says:

    I have seen as well what you describe as a senior exec lay off those who are there, and rehire his cronies. Usually it is someone who values loyalty over competence. Many times these people don’t trust those they don’t know.

  4. Brian Rude Says:

    Lynne, this is a most interesting article. All my life I have observed what I call in-group-out-group behavior. I concluded many years ago that it is a very important part of human nature, but not well examined. I conclude that in-group-out-group behavior is built into our nature through hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps millions, of human evolution, and that in the big picture at least has survival value. But to say that the phenomenon has survival value does not mean it is without problems.

    Rather than saying that some societies are “in-group” societies, I would think it would be a little more accurate to say that in-groups and out-groups take differing forms in different societies, and that has differing consequences. What you describe indeed sounds quite different than anything I have experienced, but in degree more than in kind. One memory from my childhood is of a fourth or fifth grade teacher scolding us about forming cliques. It was a new word to me at the time. And being mostly in my own little world at that time I had no idea what students she was talking to and what behavior she was censuring. But I learned the word, “clique” and learned that we should not form cliques. Over the years I formed the opinion that cliques are always present, to one degree or another, wherever there are people. But in American society in general, or at least the world I grew up in and have always lived in, “cliquish” behavior is usually pretty subdued. In American culture, at least as I know it, one may dislike some people, but it is bad manners to express those dislikes, or to act on them in petty ways. In my world there was very little of what you describe in this article.

    I would guess, though have no way of knowing, that every elementary teacher has times throughout the school year when she tries to modify the cliquish behavior of some students. But when this happens, I think she has a lot of support from American cultural values. American society in general supports the idea that clique behavior is undesirable, that we should be fair and open, egalitarian, that it’s okay to have special friends, but that we should be friendly to all, always. With this background an individual may still be tempted to cheat for friends, or to snub people he doesn’t like, but there’s no chorus in the background telling him that he’s doing a good thing.

    And against this background it seems reasonable that the term “government corruption” would have quite different meaning in America than in many other places. In America I think it is self-evident to everyone that corruption is wrong. But as you describe societies in your part of the world, it would not at all be self-evident that corruption is wrong. It is understandable that helping your friends is a good thing, practically anywhere. But balancing the trade offs and conflicts that can occur might be done quite differently in different societies.

    A few years ago, teaching college math in another state, I came across the idea that foreign students often cheat. That seemed like a pretty negative thing to say, but it was explained that many foreign students find themselves in situations where the pressure to help their peers is strong and deep, and adopting American attitudes towards cheating can seem a betrayal of family obligations. Unfortunately I had a personal experience with a cheating student that seemed to confirm this.

    Or maybe I’m too gullible about Americans’ views on cheating and corruption. Human nature, and human failings and limitations, are everywhere. Different cultures have different ways of balancing competing values and obligations. And some ways are definitely better than other ways, but I doubt that any culture has all the answers.

  5. Graphical boy Says:

    I think it is solely due to the “culture” and the civilisational advancement level of societies.

    It’s nice to be politically correct and say things in a non-offending manner, but the facts are quite obvious – some societies are obviously less civilised than others. It isn’t even as simple as a binary thing – being civilised or uncivilised as there are several different levels on the civilisational scale.

    It’s true that corruption exists everywhere in the world and that all gubmints are corrupt. That power and corruption are directly proportional when it comes to gubmints and those in power is an undeniable fact.

    But we are talking about societal corruption which is quite different from gubmintal corruption. In the more civilised societies, an ordinary person wouldn’t come across the hurdle of corruption too many times in his normal life. Obviously, corruption at the top would continue unabated, unchecked and unquestioned while there would be decreasing levels of corruption at the next levels.

    In the less civilised and least civilised societies, corruption would be an all-pervasive phenomenon, from top to bottom (or bottom to top), left, right and centre, forwards and backwards. Corruption is institutionalised and it’s almost as if it were an integral part of the “culture” of such a society.

    If one takes a look at the Human Development Index map of the world and the Corruption Index map of the world, with the odd exception or two here and there, they would both be almost exactly the same.

    It’s obvious, isn’t it? The more corrupt a society is, the less developed it would be. It’s no riddle that the third world trash cans of the world would find themselves rated the worst in terms of corruption.

    It’s a classic case of “chicken or egg?” Are the more civilised societies ahead on the human civilisational scale because they are less corrupt or are they less corrupt because they happen to be more civilised?

    It all boils down to the “culture” and the civilisational advancement of a society and its people.

    The tendency to be corrupt is an intrinsic part of the human DNA. The more civilised peoples aim to find a way to minimise the tendency and their institutions are built with the purpose of lessening the effects of the malaise.

    The less civilised and least civilised peoples (the uncouth hordes), on the other hand, aim to find a way to maximise the tendency and all their institutions (even if they were built by/modeled on more civilised institutions in earlier times) eventually find themselves hurtling down the tracks that lead to the gigantic cess pit of all pervasive, all encompassing corruption.

    After the recent horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Japanese gubmint and the company that runs the Fukushima plant (TEPCO) have proven that gubmintal and corporate corruption is rife in Japan. The Japanese gubmint and TEPCO continuously dished out (and continue to dish out) lies after blatant lies (faithfully reproduced by the boot-licking “mainstream media” hordes everywhere) about the scale of the nuclear disaster and the harmful effects of it, putting several people in mortal danger. Nothing surprising about it, as gubmints and corporates are extremely corrupt, even in the most civilised of societies.

    But on the ground, among the ordinary people, things were very different. There were absolutely NO reports of looting, theft, arson, vandalism or break-ins anywhere. Instead, everyone confirmed and were amazed at the wonderful manner in which the civilised Japanese people behaved. People sifting through the rubble of collapsed buildings neatly piled up things that did not belong to them (including essentials and valuables) by the side of the road, so that they could be found and reclaimed by their rightful owners. Victims of the disaster who were being distributed food and essentials formed long, patient queues and voluntarily took only a necessary amount for themselves so that those behind them on the line could also receive their share. The discipline, honesty, ethics and civilised behaviour of the Japanese people, even in time of such a disaster is something that has to be admired.

    In sharp contrast, take any natural disaster of such a scale that happens in any uncivilised society. After a couple of days, there would be widespread reports of chaos, theft, looting, burglary, arson, vandalism and other savage behaviour. Even in such a time of catastrophe, the uncouth hordes would be looking to steal something, forcibly take what they want by using violence. Far from forming lines, relief trucks would be forcibly looted, rescue workers would be attacked. The most worthless creatures of the society would be taking advantage of the situation and would go on a rape and murder spree. If the natural disaster was not hellish, the savage hordes would create a hell on earth afterwards solely by their own behaviour.

    What causes the stark difference in human societal behaviour (under identical circumstances) between the civilised Japanese and the savage hordes of any third world cess pit?

    Let’s just say that some societies and peoples happen to be more civilised than others.


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