Ethics or The Right Thing? Corruption and Care in the Age of Good Governance

Ethics or The Right Thing? Corruption and Care in the Age of Good Governance by Sylvia Tidey (Chicago: HAU books, 2022)   

Reviewed by Jacqueline Vel, Leiden University

Sylvia Tidey’s book challenges readers to reconsider their ideas about corruption.  As the back cover of the book explains, “Tidey shows how good governance initiatives paradoxically perpetuate civil service corruption while also facilitating the emergence of new forms of it.”  Her book, which was published by the Society for Ethnographic Theory, will be a prominent work in the field of anthropology of the state and Indonesian anthropology. Additionally, it could become an important book for socio-legal studies at universities in Indonesia and beyond as a provocative work for discussion.

The argument builds on the author’s fieldwork in Kupang, which is “the most corrupt city of Indonesia” based on the ratings of Transparency International. That qualification made the city the perfect place for ethnographic research on what locally counts as good in ‘good governance’.  Participating in the regional government office and being part of a Kupang family, Tidey was able to analyze the private world of moral obligations and how these norms and rules extend to behavior in offices. The book describes a situation of normative pluralism, not by distinguishing contrasting systems like customary and state law as common in socio-legal studies, but instead by focusing on the underlying normative spheres in everyday life that determine people’s choices. She uses the concept ‘care’ to stimulate readers to think of exchanges, gifts and help involving government officials in a different way than in terms of bribery and corruption.

Seeing Kupang as ‘the giving city’ was inspired by a plate with that slogan in front of the Mayor’s office. From that perspective the state ‘gives’ employment, salaries, and ‘improved personhood’ which are all top priorities in the lives of people in Kupang. When a person succeeds in getting employed as a permanent government official, she is able to arrange access for her relatives and other close circle members to ‘what the state gives’. Providing such access is seen as a good act of caring for each other rather than corruption or nepotism. With everyday examples from the government offices in Kupang, Tidey shows how the culture and norms of the local bureaucrats differ from what is assumed in neoliberal theories of the state.  Rather than the most corrupt city of Indonesia, Tidey argues that instead Kupang is the most giving city. As she explains, “corruption in the giving city is thus best understood not as transgression of public-private boundaries, but as a transgression of care” (p 91).

In the book there are many examples that help readers understand this upside-down logic of care supporting Tidey’s argument and make the book a joyful read.  For example, chapter 5 on “reading the bidding books” in Kupang is an illuminating story about how rules requiring transparency, which was a main element of anti-corruption measures, lead government officials to strictly apply all the rules about documentation in tenders for public projects. Tidey found that their motivation is to protect their office from investigations and use perfect documentation to cover up the normal practices of sharing within the local government-business network—practices that from the other perspective involve nepotism and corruption.

The book also raises questions. The first is about the opposition Tidey suggests between rule of care and good governance.  For government officials in Kupang this might not be an opposition.  They feel their relatives’ pressure to provide them with jobs and other state resources. Meanwhile, they should perform their duties within the bureaucracy, based on the national legal system in order to maintain the rule of law. Those government duties are wider than ‘good governance’, the term that Tidey uses as a proxy of the liberal democratic governance system and in concrete cases as rules regarding accountability, efficiency and transparency.  However, it is not the governments’ task to just perform good governance, but instead to maintain the rule of law. Combining the rule of law with the rule of care might be the real challenge for Kupang’s government officials, rather than choosing between these normative systems.

A second point of discussion is whether it is a matter of culture that some actions defined by the national legal system as corruption or nepotism are applauded in the local context of Kupang as mutual help or care. The cultural perspective might be a good explanation for cases like the employment of honorary state employees during an employment moratorium. However, there is also the material side: the absence of a state welfare system that is accessible for all citizens. Without such a system members of local societies are forced to help each other, whether it is part of  their culture or not.

And that leads to the third question about  the broader implications of Tidey’s argument. Although no one in east Indonesia would deny the existence of a moral economy that provisions care and mediates social relations, do people outside the network of government officials and local contractors share their understanding about what constitutes corruption? These care systems only extend to the insiders of the group within which care should be provisioned following local morality. Outsiders, like immigrants from other Indonesian islands or foreign refugees cannot benefit from the rule of care depicted in this book. The same holds for the majority of the province’s population consisting of poor peasants who do not have direct links with government officials in the capital town  These other inhabitants of Kupang’s province might be better off when treated by their government as citizens who have rights, regardless of their social relations with government officials.

Ethics or the Right Thing is a beautifully written and very convincing book which deserves a wide readership. An Indonesian translation would extend its relevance as teaching material for anthropology and law courses at universities where critical thinking is a priority learning objective.

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