a good system is hard to find

it has been a while since i last published a post on this blog. my delay is due to several reasons such as the want to shield beloved readers from further fear for my well being on my adventures in the kurdish north of iraq (krg), but also and even more importantly the need to digest and reflect upon the many impressions and effects this journey had on me.

currently in the process of writing up my master thesis about the field work i conducted in the kurdish region of iraq, i keep stumbling across issues i will not be able to include in my work. and it is therefore that i now return to my blog as a form of expression and sharing of ideas, questions, and observations. today i would like to discuss the almost philosophical question of what is a “good” system?

what may seem to be a rather obvious question turned out to be a puzzle not just to me but also to many others who have addressed the same issue in different terms. let me provide you with an example. corruption. is it good or bad? what about nepotism? and where is the thin line between social- and friendship networks and nepotism anyways? is it good? is it bad? do we support it or morally condemn it? it is one of these question where every person asked is likely to present a different opinion. even when comparing state structures one can find highlights in their policy and legal accentuation. it is only in the issue of corruption that we seem to be seemingly d’accord internationally that it is a “bad” thing. it is so bad in fact that some have changed the debate terminologically and now focus on monetary enforced lobbying instead. so the question i want to address in this article is the following: corruption is bad. or is it?

there is many reasons for attributing negative adjectives to a corrupt system. all morality issues aside, one can observe a stark delegitimization of institutions caused by corruption, for instance. put in simpler terms, the cause can be explained in an obvious example: you speed down the highway and get pulled over by the police. but you know that you will never have to fear any further reaching consequences if you just pull out your purse and pay an “administrative fee” to the officer. cash. no card, no trace. the policeman knows he can collect this “fee” and put it in his private pocket to bolster his already thin salary because there is no enforcing agency to check on his actions. and even if there is, he shares a part of his bribe and gets away with it himself. – and while my dear reader will be tempted to think of a “third world” country at this point, i can guarantee that this scenario is taken out of a central european context. it happens. on few occasions, which is why the “general trust” in the functionality of “the system” is not jeopardized. but it happens. the more this tendency of “paying fees” and “getting away with it” is spread across all different layers of daily life however, the more the population is likely to trust in the system at all. a general rule of thumb by scientific observation is that petit corruption (the “small” corruption that occurs on a daily level and effects almost all levels of people) is more effective in eroding the trust in the system of governance than any big scandal of money laundering.
another aspect of a corrupt system is that corruption breeds corruption. as discussed with many of my friends on the ground in corrupt systems of state, a corrupt organization is only interested in hiring corrupt people in order to maintain the level of “additional income” on all levels. employees are only interested in a corrupt boss in order to maintain corruption for themselves, as is the employer interested in corrupt workers as no one can point the finger at him or her without going down themselves. it is a fragile net of everybody knowing it and no body saying it, where the pointing of fingers brings the entire system down, including oneself; particularly oneself. corruption seems to be the ultimate form of interdependence.

with all these theoretical reflections upon corruption, let me know provide you with an example that has stunned me personally again and again every time i reflect upon it: the kurdish regional government. iraq is a corrupt country. and the kurdish north is no different from it. there is a lot of money flowing aside and sometimes even parallel to the official money traces.
now, in order to understand what i am about to expose, one needs to first understand the official flow of money in iraq, relating to the kurdish north. bare with me. according to the constitution, every region of iraq is provided with a certain percentage of the budget according to size and population. the kurdish north has access to 17% of this federal budget every year. putting all debates about this amount and the question of whether the krg has ever even received the full 17% aside, officially this percentage of federal budget was the only income of the krg for a long time. the emphasis on “officially” relates to the untraceable flow of kurdish oil across the borders of turkey and iran through tanks. these oil routs only became partially official at the end of 2013 when the pipeline for kurdish oil towards turkey was completed. there is, however, rumors that the unofficial routs of transport still continue parallel to the pipeline. it was the opening of this pipeline that caused a stark debate between baghdad and erbil (krg) and eventually led to a freezing of the federal budget for the krg. this budget debate has been ongoing ever since the beginning of 2014 and was only crowned by short interim successes where the krg was able to pay one month or two month of salaries to its population. you have to understand that the krg is a region that is highly dependent on its oil income. with almost no existing level of industry, export, or agriculture, oil and the federal budget of iraq are the only income sources for the region. in addition, the krg has an estimated 70% of its population directly employed by the government. i even heard estimates that the entire monthly budget of 500.000 transferred to the krg at one point is only enough to pay off one month of salaries to these 70% which amounts to 480.000 every month. please note that these estimates are not proven but only rumors.
but even without numerical proof, what stunned me while being in kurdistan for several month was that there was no collapse of the system visible. shops remained open, the shopping malls were still full, and people seemed to go about their business almost as usual. i am not saying that there was no repercussions at all; but compared to the extent of the lack of capital in the area, the consequences remained at a surprising minimum.
to me there was only one explanation to the relative stability of the system. and i got my theory confirmed by many critical observers, local and international, on the ground. it was money flowing elsewhere, invisible, behind closed doors and curtains, that kept the system alive. corruption. nepotism. clientalism.

so let me get back to my initial question. what is a good system? it is a question that has been bugging me ever since. is a “good” system one that is morally defendable? or is a “good” system simply one that works? one that keeps the society going; even in times of turmoil? and if you answer it is the later, then we need to rethink the absolutism in banning corruption as a morally despicable term.

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