Sunday, January 20, 2013

What is the Italian for “dash” and “baksheesh”?

There is much talk of corruption in Italy and for the last year and more, we have been bombarded with accounts of kickbacks, bribes and embezzlement by civil servants and above all, elected politicians.

But as with many other serious issues in the country like the pollution and health questions surrounding the massive ILVA steelworks in Taranto, remedies only seem to come from the judiciary. Only in the last few days have the political parties decided that they would look better if they didn’t put up candidates convicted of serious crimes.

So it was with sardonic amusement that students in the American University of Rome’s field trip to Ghana (which had a brief stopover in Casablanca) noted a couple of billboards, one Moroccan,

the other outside the Constitutional Court in Accra. One is an ideogram and very explicit, the other uses words equally explicitly.

Certainly, posters like these are not going to stop corruption any more than road signs stop motorists speeding but it does indicate an awareness on the part of the administration that corruption is not just a matter for the courts.

It is significant that while there are colloquial words for a bribe in both countries – the Arabic baksheesh and the west African dash, Italian has no similar word for bribe. Pizzo, the Sicilian word means an extortion payment to mafia; mazzetta and tangente are words for kickbacks, a percentage on payments rather than a bribe. The lack of words is not so surprising as the open bribing of policemen or civil servants is unusual; I would feel more secure slipping a large banknote into my driving licence when stopped in parts of London or New York than in Italy and the normal way round troublesome bureaucratic procedures is more effective through friends (where the “payment” will be delayed and in kind) than through an explicit bribe.

Still, corruption is a major problem, one which needs more than magistrates to deal with. We could do with some public information campaigns here too.

For the record, Transperancy International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2012 rates Morocco 88th with a score of 37/100, Italy is 72nd and scores 42 while Ghana is 64th, scores 45 (Denmark, Finland and NZ are joint first with 90. Joint last at 174th and a score of 9, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia).

My thanks to Margherita Gabrieli for the photos.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

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