Culture change - Chris Cork - Monday, July 19, 2010

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There is something of a slightly sinful pleasure in seeing the holders of fake degrees exposed, with the numbers going up by the day. It is variously talked of as a ‘scandal’ or a ‘crisis’ and those of us that scribble for a living have had great sport sticking pins in the men and women whose duplicity is exposed. The usual conspiracy theories get trotted out with the current favourite being that this is all a plot to provoke a mid-term poll and bring about a change of government. Does it look like it’s going to happen? No – and never did. The most likely scenario is that the current government will stagger its way to the next election and then be roundly defeated by a very disappointed electorate. They will be replaced by another group of dynasts who promise jam tomorrow but never jam today and the cycle will continue – but maybe with a difference.

In under three years time I will celebrate my twentieth year of contact with Pakistan and will have lived and worked here for much of that time. Like most long-term observers I have seen a gradual decline in the integrity of Pakistan as a state at just about every level – or at every level I have regular contact with. I have met corruption and deceit on a grand scale whilst working in the NGO sector, been aware of contracts fraudulently obtained, of backhanders being paid and of my own direct contact with the wonderful world of corruption.

I recall sitting across from a senior official in Kashmir and Northern Affairs Division who said, without batting an eyelid, that it was going to cost me Rs20,000 for him to write a ‘No objection Certificate’ which would enable my visa renewal. Then there was the senior officer in a well-known international NGO who had an interest in the building of a local school who wanted me to hand over a grant cheque to him and his pals in a hotel in Gilgit – rather than to a representative of the community in public view on the school playground. Yet another – a politician this time – who put a fat envelope on my desk and indicated that this was in exchange for me giving his son who I knew and had all the intellectual capacity of a goldfish – a job.

Refusal of each brought me considerable difficulty. I had to leave the country at short notice and re-apply for another visa from the UK. The man who I refused to give the cheque to retaliated by claiming at a very senior level that I was a Jewish spy (I have never made a secret of my atheism and can do nothing whatsoever about the spy thing because most people I meet – including my immediate colleagues in the office – assume I am a spy) with consequences that I still bump into today. The politician that I offended by not giving a job to his useless son did all he could to make life difficult for me and my family for years afterwards.

My experiences will not be much different to anybody else who has worked at a senior level in the aid business here or been involved in anything that had large sums of money or influence attached to it.

‘This is Pakistan’ they say with a shrug and a smile – and I wonder how often I have heard that over the years. ‘This is Pakistan’ and you just have to accept it. This is the way we do things here… pay up.

Challenging that assumption is never an option or at least only an option if you are prepared to put up with some industrial-strength harassment – or is it?

The origins of the fake-degree issue lie in the culture of dishonesty at every level of society that is decades old. Over time there has become a perversion of traditional normative values, a blurring of the distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – and a strong tendency to lie if found out in any falsehood, thus compounding the moral value failure. I find this twisted culture everywhere I go, it is not limited to the rich and powerful though they are perhaps the most fluent of its exponents. But nothing is immutable, and as the numbers of fake-degree holders in parliament and the provincial assemblies grow there is something happening that gives me a glimmer of hope. The ripple effect.

Suddenly, universities are thinking it might be a good idea to check the authenticity of the academic credentials of their faculty members; suddenly there are lawyers some of whom have practised for decades, shown to have degrees that are not worth the paper they are printed on. It is not going to be long before there is a tightening of recruitment procedures in the civil service – and come the next election any potential candidate needs to make very sure that their ‘A’ level in biology is the real deal. What we may – and you will have to permit me a minor outbreak of optimism – be seeing is a growing confidence to challenge the orthodoxy of corruption.

Hitherto there has been no space in which it was safe to make that challenge, no space in which there was room for an alternative narrative that spoke to a higher set of values than the ones currently in play. If we can begin to clean up our parliament and provincial assemblies, have properly-qualified men and women teaching in our universities and civil servants who believe that ‘ethics’ need to be internalised rather than filed in the waste-paper basket – then we might be on to something. If we can begin to reset the checks and balances, to restore in the collective mind a clear difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the importance of doing the former rather than the latter, then something at least can be salvaged from the wreckage.

Now where did I put that file with my academic certificates in?

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: manticore73@

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