Living on Pennies

Here is a heart-breaking series of stories about living in poverty in the third world. The Congo is so poor there are no jobs just “se debrouiller – French for getting by, or eking a living out of nothing.” Sweatshops in these countries would be a blessing but corruption, war and violence keep foreign investment away.

Even the corruption, however, is sadly understandable. The government has no money and so pays its workers with the opportunity to take bribes. And thus the country is trapped. The corruption tax prevents the people from starting businesses and accumulating capital, corruption can’t be fought without funds to pay workers but there are no funds because corruption prevents the earning of income.

But even a society living on the edge needs civil servants. Men with government seals, such as Pancrace Rwiyereka, a grandfatherly former schoolteacher who runs Goma’s Division of Work, engage in their own version of se debrouiller.

They don’t bring home an actual salary, but the majority still show up for work every day. A government job gives them the opportunity to demand money from businesses and members of the public. Their official jobs are a charade.

“Bribes are the answer,” said a mid-level government employee in the finance department. “Why do you think we would never give up our jobs or strike to get our salaries?”

Authorities require entrepreneurs importing goods to obtain stamps from at least six agencies: the main customs office, an immigration office, a health agency, a separate health office that certifies goods for consumption, the governor’s tax revenue office and a provincial office that collects money from truckers for nonexistent road rehabilitation.

Thanks to Marc Andreessen for the pointer.


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