‘This is the real story of how Africa works. How the rich are getting richer, and the poor are dying.’ It is with these lines that BAFTA Award-winning journalist Sorious Samura begins his documentary. What is tearing the African continent to pieces, he says, is not diseases, war or underdevelopment. It’s corruption.
The documentary, part of the Dispatches series on current affairs on UK Channel 4, provides a first-hand portrait of corruption in Africa. With the aid of a hidden camera, Samura goes to Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum located in the heart of the capital city, Nairobi. He stays with a local family for a week to show us what corruption means in the daily life of slum dwellers.
Bribes are needed to get into hospital, to get a job − ‘if we don’t pay we don’t work’ − and even just to build a shack in a slum. After paying 3,000 Kenyan Shillings (about £20) in bribes, Samura comments, ‘This is a dirty experience. Altogether I have paid a month’s rent in bribes just to be allowed to build a shack in one of Africa’s most notorious slums. For people here it must be financially crippling, if not impossible’.
Policemen, teachers and housing inspectors − they all need to be routinely bribed. Taxi drivers bribe policemen so that can drive their taxi; students bribe teachers so that they can get their assignments marked (and occasionally get free marks in the process); and slum dwellers bribe housing inspectors so that they can build a roof over their head.
‘There is no sense of efficiency’, says Samura, ‘it pays to be corrupt.’ He points out how the meagre income of hospital staff, policemen and teachers contributes to fuel the bribing cycle. Not being paid properly is part of the problem; greed is another one.
Samura goes on showing the cracks through which development aid allocated for HIV/AIDS programmes in Kenya has fallen, without ever reaching most of its intended recipients. He discovers how many agencies exist only ‘by name’, and how easy it is to set up your own agency and cash in donations.
On the failures of NGOs handing out aid on the ground, a corruption investigator comments, ‘It is a question of going public, making big speeches and saying nice buzzwords…most of them [NGOs] come here as this is a trouble spot. Serve your time, don’t rock the boat. And avoid anything controversial. Do your time and then off you go. Because they have no heart and soul in what they’re doing in terms of what is happening to the country. I remember this music guy, Bob Geldof, talking about making poverty history. I’m sorry, with all due respect to his efforts and whatnot, I think it’s all a waste of time. The key is fighting corruption.’
This is not what you would call a typically optimistic documentary: there is no sugar coating in showing the impact of aid and government malpractice in Kenya.
Rather, it is a disillusioned first-hand account of how corruption works in the daily life of thousands of Africans. With its poignant editing and dialogue, the documentary delivers a clear and expressive message. Both images and content are testimony to Samura’s courage in the photographic journalism and non-adulterated presentation of facts in his documentaries.
A few points to leave with: the documentary is a good reminder of reality vs. idealism − we should not lose sight of what actually needs fixing (food for thought: governance, accountability and international trading agreements) and where/how development/humanitarian work could effectively be improved. Acknowledging limitations and challenges provides an entry point for effective action.
Also, we should not forget that corruption is not just an African problem, but a world-wide one. And when talking about African corruption, the West needs to take responsibility too: as Samura reminds us, there is no shortfall of Western banks willing to help move and store corrupt money coming from Africa.
Lastly, we need to avoid the trap of generalisation and label all development efforts as failed and corrupt: although abuse and misuse of aid do happen, there are brilliant, successful and committed organisations out there that are really putting their energy and soul into making a difference in people’s lives. One at a time.