Gifts, Bribes, and Development in Post-Soviet Kazakstan

Article excerpt

Beginning in the 1990s, development organizations launched a global anticorruption campaign. Throughout the world, including post-Soviet Kazakstan, widespread corruption is generally viewed as a serious threat to economic development and political stability. This article addresses the practical problem of distinguishing gifts from bribes in a society like Kazakstan, where some gifts function in part as bribes. The search for this nonexistent boundary reveals the limitations of categories such as "gifts," "bribes," and "commodities." In addition, by examining local perceptions of morality and corruption, this article provides insights for developing culturally appropriate development programs to fight corruption.

Key words: exchange, gifts, development, corruption, Kazakstan

Employing self-interested bureaucrats, disregarding cultural and gender differences, straining local environments, and planning projects without local partici ation have all been touted as explanations for failed development projects (Hill 1986; Brain 1996; Ferguson 1990; Cernea 1991). In response to these critiques, development planners have made concerted efforts to develop `culturally compatible projects," to think about "sustainability issues," and to "put people first." Although these changes have certainly improved development projects in the past two decades, they have not provided a magical cure for alleviating global inequality. In 1990, after 45 years of development efforts, there were over one billion people living in absolute poverty, with annual incomes of less than $370 (World Bank 1990). This poor track record has prompted donor nations and their constituents to question whether development aid is a worthwhile expenditure. From 1991 to 1997, official development assistance has declined by one-third in real terms, from approximately $73 billion to $44 billion (World Bank 1998x). What can the development industry do to preserve its resources and reputation? In recent years, development experts have increasingly placed the blame on a familiar but forgotten culprit-corruption (Elliott 1997; Kaufmann and Siegelbaum 1997; Tanzi 1998).

Bribery, pilferage, and patronage are just a few of the more common forms of corruption. For a long time, these practices were regarded with some ambivalence. Bribery, after all, can be useful for "greasing the machine's wheel" or speeding things up. In the 1960x, a number of scholars argued that corruption might have some beneficial effects on economic and political stability in developing countries (Leff 1964; Bayley 1966). Similar yet stronger arguments have been made in the case of socialist countries (Kramer 1977; Ericson 1984; Grossman 1984). Accepting these "realities," industrialized countries, with the exception of the United States, have generally permitted bribes outside of their borders as tax-deductible business expenses.1 The emergence of a global anticorruption campaign in the mid-1990s, however, has led to a reconsideration of these practices. No longer viewed as a benign tumor, corruption has been rediagnosed as the leading threat to economic and political stability in developing and transition economies around the world.2

As the global anticorruption campaign gets underway, experts are trying to come up with ways to define and measure corrupt practices. One of the many problems involved with measuring and comparing corruption is that the forms of corruption vary widely from one society to the next, for both historical and cultural reasons. In fact, the boundaries between "corrupt" behavior and "cultural" behavior are not always clear, especially when it comes to the distinction between "bribes" and "gifts." Where does one draw the line? In an IMF report on corruption, Vito Tanzi, a leader of the anticorruption campaign, acknowledges that it is difficult yet important to make this distinction. The way he distinguishes the two, however, should raise an eyebrow or two among economic anthropologists. …