Bribery, Piracy and Police Fundraisers

by Angie Washington on April 28, 2014

One meets road blocks on our highways. A driver stops and the man by the shack saunters out with a huge rifle perched on his hip. He glances over the vehicle and says with tired bluntness and a slight curve of a grin, “The time has come for you to pay me.” He receives the bills and lifts the branch tied to a rope so the driver can pass.

How do you feel about bribery?

For a business to operate legally in our town the owners pay taxes. Receipts are issued to clients to register transactions for tax purposes. Surprise inspectors stand outside shops and ask clients to show them their receipts. If proper receipts aren’t issued the business is closed until they comply with tax standards.


Countless shops sell pirated DVDs, CDs, and games. They operate legally and proudly display their tax registration compliance document on the wall, just as the law tells them they must.

What are your thoughts on piracy?

At the end of the year employees are paid an obligatory 13th month salary. During the month of December motorists choose odd routes so they can avoid strategic police traps. Dozens of officers on foot set up cones and stop drivers at busy thoroughfares. They confiscate motorcycles, write mountains of tickets, and look the other way when cold hard cash is slipped into their hands. Their efforts guarantee their 13th month bonus.

Do you have an opinion about authorities who take liberties?

The organization you work with may have strict policies about bribery, extortion, and other grey areas. Other foreign residents are left to find personal standards of operation.

The word ‘legal’ has many layers when you mix governments and religious belief systems. Conflicts arise when traditions of dress, diet, and holidays demand a choice. When “tipping” an official to do their job gets the paperwork through in days instead of months we are faced with the realities of cultural assimilation.

Push back against the traditional norms, and even the law, and you may face life and death implications. The moral divide for those who hid Jews during the Holocaust went beyond compliance with legal standards and called for people to invoke action against unconscionable terrorism.

How do you choose to draw the line in the land where you live?

Do you…

Cut corners? Bend the rules? Grease the wheels? Deal under the table? Justify the means by the end goal?

Or are you…

Straight-laced? A stickler? Dudley Do-right? A by-the-book type? An ‘i’ dotter and a ‘t’ crosser?

Feel free to share your stories and opinions in the comments below. 

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About Angie Washington

Co-Founder, Editor of this collaborative blog site: A Life Overseas
  • Yogas

    When I first went back to Mexico, I thought that’s the way it was, about bribing a traffic cop. Then our Pastor preached against it. I was still stopped after that, with my Oregon plates, but I never paid another bribe, and I never got another ticket!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Yogas. I am glad to hear that heading your pastor’s teaching yielded positive results in your life.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Such a good conversation! I think this is a hard issue. When a local economy seems to depend on bribery, does it become part of the economic landscape? I think about the concept of ‘tipping’ that is so foreign to many who come to the United States. They are shocked – why tip?? The person is expected to give good service. But those of us who know some of the ‘rules’ know that restaurant staff are paid around $2.50 an hour – not a living wage. So if the customer doesn’t tip, it’s a problem. Is bribery the same? Maybe in some instances it is like tipping, and in other it is clearly wrong. I have no answers but I don’t think it’s easy and I find it hard to deal in black and white. I think a huge piece of this is talking to people of integrity within the host country – asking them about it. And learning through that. Thanks for bringing this up.

    • Richelle Wright

      i agree that in some instances, it is totally cultural and does not violate principles in God’s Word and that is where, as Marilyn says, finding people of integrity within the culture to help determine guidelines is absolutely key.

      but the other side of this is that sometimes we have a tendency to justify behavior because we aren’t willing to count the cost and then suffer the consequences for a right stand to make. in the name of expediency (as much as that can ever happen in the places where this is so common), for the sake of the mission… we can find all sorts of excuses to slip into the cultural context even when the cultural context does violate Scriptural principles – and then i believe we’ve taken matters into our own hands and miss the opportunity to see God work, even if that working is in ways that are personally uncomfortable – if that makes sense. biblically, the example that comes to mind at this moment is sarah offering hagar to abraham… a totally culturally accepted and expected thing to do… even though that isn’t a true parallel to the bribery situation.

      • Marilyn Gardner

        Excellent example of Sarah and Hagar. So much of this is as you state, being willing to work through the hard and not just throw up our hands with the ‘it’s all cultural’ card.

      • God’s ways are not our ways, indeed, Richelle. Even Jesus says on a number of occasions, “You have heard it said… but I give you a new way…” He addressed issues covered by the law of the land, too, like adultery and taxes. So even when things are legal and culturally accepted (even expected) we must take each case before the Lord and find out what He wants from us. I thank God that sometimes coins still show up in fishes mouths – that He will make a way where there seems to be no way. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    • YES! Talking with people of integrity withing the host country is vital. Thank you for that, Marilyn. I wonder as well about the economic implications. Your example about the wages servers receive in the States needing to be supplemented by tips is excellent. I do think in some cases that the situation is skewed in other countries when the “tips” are used to pad already fat pockets and perpetuate the cycle of injustice and abuse. I agree that it is hard to deal in black and white.

  • Tim

    I’ve tipped government functionaries only a couple of times in my life. Once it was an immigration employee who helped me renew my family’s visas without having to sit through the line for five hours; he was doing me a big favor. Once it was after we talked immigration officials at a border into letting my companions enter the country despite not having their departure airplane tickets with them. I once paid a ” consular fee” that turned out to be bogus, also related to a visa renewal. I didn’t realize it was bogus at the time. Not receiving a receipt should have tipped me off.
    Several times on cross-country trips, my dad was stopped at checkpoints by policemen who were clearly hoping for a bribe. Dad always insisted on a receipt when they attempted to “fine” him for some supposed violation without issuing a ticket, and would wait them out. Sometimes we sat for an hour or more until they gave up. Once we occupied a police station lobby because they had confiscated my sister’s driver’s license and were about to close. I don’t think Dad ever knowingly paid a tip or bribe.

    • How beautiful, Tim, that you have a upstanding example to look to in your Dad. You give good advice about patience and about asking for a receipt as well. Thanks for mentioning those two very practical tips.

      • Russell Mills

        I live in Cambodia. I worked with a small tourist company owned by a local lady. She is a Christian and believed in not bribing. She also always asked for receipts and even reported that some government officers now recognize her and don’t bother asking. She does have to wait longer sometimes though and it can be quite frustrating. But one other story I heard was about changes in some South American countries. Where I am in Cambodia corruption is very much the norm, but I was told that a few years back, I think it was in Brazil or Argentina that some upper level government officials were removed from office because of corruption. There was change in the national culture largely do to the spread of Christianity in which ever country that was. So I have a long term and a short term view. Short term, I sometimes pity the police because they really are underpaid by their corrupt superiors and by the plan of the government who sets their saleries. There is a political minority that is gaining in popularity and power that are against corruption and one of their policy points is to raise base salaries of police and other government workers. So my short term view is that I sometimes think it might even be fair to give bribes. But then I think about the long term. I am starting to learn, that if I want to be a part of long term change, I have to be willing to endure hardship and in-conveniences, and be willing to sacrifice my immediate goals for the good of the long term good. If I want to see corruption really be dealt with in this country, I have to be willing to stand against it and be a part of proving to locals that it’s possible to have a society without corruption. Maybe if we keep it up and still have success in our work in spite of the seeming obstacle, the trend will catch on and corrupt people will be forced to do business more legitimately. So in summery, I have to ask myself which is more important; getting my short term project completed in my time frame, or trusting God for his timing and for bigger picture results that may reach beyond my limited perspective (even if my own project may not even get done at all).
        I hope I can grow to be more like your dad Tim.

  • I do not mind piracy because IMO what that means is they do not have copy right laws. We forget that before the printing press, westerners did not have rules about plagiarism either. I remember when I took a class at the university, and they gave us a pirated textbook. That would never go on in the US, but it’s just not something we can fight. I’m not a fan of bribary because it’s it encourages coruption. But I’ve known people in terrible situation that could not be resolved any other way. For example, when you are in a traffic accident, and the westerner gets blamed. No amount of begging can convince the cop to drop it. I am not saying what I would do in a situation I have not experienced, but I try not to judge people either.

    • You bring up a good point, Lana, about terrible situations. For the sake of the discussion I wonder how our view of these terrible situations would change in light of the verse in 1Corinthians 6:7

      “Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?”

      The context refers to legal disputes between brothers and sister in the family of God. But maybe there is some truth here that could be transferred to our interactions with ‘strangers’. As another commenter suggested on the facebook thread, why not bring up our beliefs and talk about our dedication to God in the way that we do things? This might spur those same strangers to examine their own beliefs. Who knows, but that they might be fellow believers as well?

      I appreciate your comment that you try not to judge people either. Thanks for contributing to this talk!

      • Yea you bring up a great point. I had a friend whose car was hit by a drunk motorcyclist Yet he had to pay for the medical bills (even though it was not his fault). He came to realize that God was teaching him about injustice that man people over here go through every day.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Last week I was stopped for running a red light. Which I had done but you sort of have to sometimes because of how the lights are positioned and how cars turn and well, you know, third world driving…So I should have paid a ticket but I was so fed up with all the other times of feeling taken advantage of/seeing people in authority take liberties or deal in bribes that I fought with the policemen and said some things I wished I hadn’t. They handled it so much better than I did and they let me go and then I felt just TERRIBLE. I wanted to go back and pay it but couldn’t because they had ripped it up. So that’s just to say that we’re all of us messed up, I guess!

    • You’re a feisty one, Rachel! I like that about you! I’ve had a few shouting matches in the streets, too. Not once have I left feeling justified; I always feel awful. So, thank you for your confession, and let me just say that I understand. Along the same lines of intuitive driving taking president over stuff like turn lanes and traffic lights… what do you do when you come upon a light that is shining both green and red at the same time? Yep. It happens. You laugh. Look again, and again, and again, and just move your little booty along hoping it all works out.

  • Ironic that this conversation comes just a few days after I “paid my fine to the cop.” Getting a ticket in the developing country in which I live means they take your driver’s license immediately! They give you a document to take to the bank and pay your fine. After that, you have to take the receipt to the police station. However, you have to wait sometimes several weeks before your license arrives at the police station so you can pick it up. It is a HUGE headache. I can see how this is a great deterant for traffic crime. However, we (North Americans) are often targeted simply because of our Passport country. When I got a ticket last summer, it was for “bad parking” while I was pulled off on the side of the road, waiting for the other vehicle in our group to get gas. There were other cars pulled off in front of me and behind me. The officer gave me a ticket and only me. When asked, he said it was because I had a van full of “gringos” and could afford it. Can I tell you how infuriating that was?

    How do we deal with stuff like this? I agree this is one of the toughest parts about living overseas. So when I got pulled over last week and the officer took my license… I asked if I could pay the fine now to avoid her taking my license. I know… how horrible! But I was on my way to a doctor appointment and absolutely had not broken any laws. I could tell the officer was not going to let me off and there is no way to fight a ticket here. It’s not like I can get a lawyer and say she targeted me or what not. So in essence I can either pay now or pay later. In this particular instance, I chose to pay now.

    The look on the officer’s face was sheer joy. Seriously. She told me about her kids and her family and said thank you so much. The amount I gave her was equivalent to a day’s wage here, but couldn’t even buy two combo meals at McDonalds. Part of me felt good for helping her. And another part felt absolutely horrible… especially for the whole system that leaves her desperate and causes situations like that.

    I don’t know the answer. I’m sure I do it wrong all the time. I’m writing a blog post about this very topic and am grateful for the opportunity to have an honest conversation about it here.

    • Hey there Wendy 🙂 Wow, you will have to come back and paste the link with your blog post is up so I can check it out. I enjoyed reading your story. Thanks for sharing it. I too have conflicted feelings on SO many occasions. It’s hard to know what to do when you have to choose “the lesser of two evils”.

  • As for the “Do You?” and “Are You” question… my answer would be “still confused”. I sometimes pay the “fine” and I sometimes push back. I’ll buy discs I know are pirated when I’m in Asia but I wouldn’t do it in Australia. I listen to my husband talk about the “gifts” that government officials need to be given to make things run smoothly for the NGO work, and it makes me cringe, but I know it’s just part of the system there and change is slow and incremental and perhaps giving such gifts is not only pragmatic but it is, for now, a part of respecting culture. But I still don’t like it. So. Confused.

    • Confused just about describes my own mental state regarding these issues, too, Lisa. I often wonder if I wouldn’t be so conflicted if I grew up in a developing nation. Then I get to thinking about my own kids who in fact are growing up with these things as the “norm”. As you allude to, we become adept at being chameleons, changing standards to fit the surrounding culture. Provocative, no?

  • Richelle Wright

    i can’t believe i forgot this story yesterday when i commented ~ when we were first in niger, we’d always have to “tip” the customs officials when we received packages in the mail, if we wanted to leave the post office with them, that is. and since grandma liked to send birthday & Christmas packages, we were in that office on a relatively consistent basis. usually my hubby would go and pick up the packages, and he’d give the customs official some food or batteries or something from the package as their tip. and it left us a bit angry, confused and wondering if we were doing something “wrong” and reinforcing the corruption so prevalent when dealing with official channels. well, hubby was out of town, we received the package notification and i had to go in… and i had to take the kiddos with me, including the birthday child. after the customs official had gone through the box and taken everything out, looked at it, separated it into piles of what she found interesting (which stayed out of the box) and what she didn’t find interesting (thrown back into the box), she asked me if she could have something from the interesting pile. you should have seen birthday child’s eyes and face. i was a bit angry – and if i’d actually thought about it, probably wouldn’t have done what i did, because it put my daughter on the spot, but i said to the official that i didn’t have the right to answer that question – the items in the box didn’t belong to me but were gifts for my daughter from her grandparents for her birthday, so therefore belonged to my daughter. she’d have to ask her if she wanted something. she immediately scooped everything up and put it in the box and wished us a nice day, handing the box to the birthday girl. afterwards, i could see it was God’s grace that this happened with this particular child (others would have had a meltdown), because my daughter pulled out a nice notebook and a candy bar and gave it to the official as she said thank you. that official never asked for something from one of our gift boxes again – although we often did share some of the “treasure.”

    did i do the right thing? i don’t know, and i actually don’t think so – like i said, looking back, i wouldn’t have responded as i did, but actually responded in anger (which isn’t biblical) and could have caused probs with both the official and my daughter later. but God was gracious…

  • Amy

    Funny that this topic came up right after I have been doing some serious thinking about this. Like many other people said… still confused.

    Last week I was in a situation where I was pulled over by the police, and had no idea what I did wrong. Here the police will often retain your license until you pay your fine… but from the stories I have heard you will probably never get your license back again. The officer made me get out so that he could show me the “no passing” sign that was clearly in view, and then proceeded to find the most expensive ticket he could possibly give me. Now, I really had passed someone, and so technically I broke the law, but my problem was that I drive that route at least 3 times per week and those signs had never been there before, and I haven’t seen them since.

    While the police officer and I were talking a government vehicle came by, did the same thing and just kept driving. When I asked the police officer about it he simply said that he would not pull over a government vehicle because there were important people inside.

    He finally (after about 10 minutes) agreed to let me go but only if I had something to give him. So I ended up giving him a box of cookies and a soda and he was completely satisfied to let me leave. Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. I still don’t know what I would do if the same thing happened again, but I am sure that it is never a black and white issue…

  • Charlotte

    I run an English school in Cambodia where about 450 young people study and hear about Jesus every week. We are using “illegally” copied textbooks, and have been since the school was started eight years ago. I stepped into leading the school only two years ago. There are lots of expensive English schools in our town, but we are very cheap because we want to provide training to poor students.

    Recently, I have wanted to update the curriculum, but if I buy the real books, they will cost more than the whole tuition we charge right now! I struggle all the time with knowing that providing (illegally copied) books for $1 is part of what allows our tuition to be so low, although most universities use the same type of books.

    A similar issue is that our organisation trains Cambodians to use photo and video editing computer programs, but all the programs the Cambodians have are illegal copies, too! The question I ask myself is, “What is the priority here? Providing the training and skills, or the legal limitations of copyright that we are used to abiding by?” Hmmm…

  • Mary Kay Jackson

    Here in West Africa, it seems we are faced with these dilemmas on an almost daily basis. It is something that we missionaries talk about regularly, with all the varied points of view expressed here.

    I have been stopped for running green lights, that were allegedly red, speeding when I wasn’t, etc. Once in a mixed group of Ghanaians and expats, we were talking about this – the expats all agreed that we were stopped regularly for questionable reasons. The Ghanaians couldn’t believe that it happened, as it doesn’t happen to them. But we have profiling in the US too, so I look at this as putting the shoe on the other foot.

    Frequently I pull the “ignorant expat” routine. Since they can’t ask outright, if you don’t “understand” the police will frequently get frustrated and wave you on. The funniest was when we were stopped on Eid-al-Fitr and asked for a “Sala gift”. “What is Sala?”, we asked. “We’re Christians.” The policeman looked at us like we were idiots, shook his head in bemusement, and let us go. We decided unfortunately that we couldn’t use this technique when stopped and asked for Christmas gifts, as that might come too close to denying Christ.

    Another funny one was when I was stopped on the way home from school with my teenage son in the other seat. The police officer had the same name as my son, Ken, so they got in a discussion about how cool their name was. The officer then decided to let me go, but wanted “something small” for his troubles. I literally had no money with me, so I asked Ken if he had any change left from his lunch. He started rooting through his backpack and came up with about a dollar’s worth of local coins. The policeman looked horrified and said he couldn’t take Ken’s lunch money, so he just let us go.

    In the end, while frustrating, I find it is easier to live with if I can keep a sense of humor about it all.

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