It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s the prime minister who uses government funds to send his son to Oxford. It’s the minister who gives key jobs in his ministry to unqualified relatives. It’s the MP who spends his constituency grant on his family. It’s the chief who makes sure the village development fund goes to his clan and not the rest of the community…it’s nepotism, something that impedes good governance in most developing countries. Political economists, aid agency staff and even most residents of developing countries will tell you that the world would be a better place without it. And yet for something that is so unambiguously bad there are strange ambiguities – paradoxes – that run through nepotism.
The first being that while it is bad for society as a whole, and while it is almost universally condemned as morally wrong when people think about its impacts of the efficacy of government, nepotism is born of emotions and instincts that we usually consider good at another level: people’s love and concern for the welfare of their own family and friends. Familial love, it turns out, aggregates upward not to a lovely society but to a corrupt one.
The second paradox of nepotism is that it is born of the world’s oldest social safety net: family and friends. And yet it impedes the proper development of the most effective social safety net our planet has developed to date — the welfare state.
The third paradox of nepotism, in aid work at least, is that we (aid workers) all agree it’s wrong, but most of us still make use of it ourselves. Got a legal problem with a contract which needs fixing quick. Who are you going to call? That unfriendly contracts manager? Or the staff member who you befriended at work drinks the other week? Want a reference for a new job? Are you really going to call your most recent boss? (The one who was cold and clinical.) Or are you going to get in touch with the manager prior to that, who you used to go surfing with? And are you really going to wait in the official queue to get advice on the governance project, when you could just ‘run into’ the governance advisor and have a friendly chat?
[Update: The fourth paradox of nepotism is that if you are a good aid worker you will actually strive hard to increase the short term quantity of something akin to nepotism in the country where you are working. You've got the chequebook and the big white land cruiser, but you actually have surprisingly little power (power to do good at least). So much depends on your local interlocutors and their desire to help. This may come because they support what you are trying to do, but don't count on it. And if they don't, they are armed with all the 'weapons of the weak' they need to turn your log frame into a log jam. And, in a second best world, getting counterparts to like you, and wanting to help you owing to personal affinity, usually helps. I'm no expert but it seems to me that, it is for this very reason that good aid workers get more done because they are likeable, respectful, and don't come across as arrogant.]
[Update two: my wife thinks the fourth paradox comes across as way to harsh on local staff. So, to be clear -- many aid programme staff are incredible people who want to do good and who we can safely assume are even more committed to development than we are (no big pay cheque for them). However, this is not always the case (particularly say if you're working with a government department). And even if local staff do support the cause, it still helps, if they like you and want to help you personally. This nothing particular to developing countries: it is true everywhere on Earth).]
None of this means that we shouldn’t seek to diminish the scourge of nepotism. But we should also accept that it never completely goes away — the various actors in development are far too human for that to ever happen. And we should also be very humble about our ability to tackle nepotism. Capacity building is hardly going to stop someone from wanting to do good for their family.
[note: I'm pretty sure I read that first paradox on someone else's blog recently. If it was yours: sorry, let me know, and I'll link].