Baksheesh (Middle East, North Africa and sub-continental Asia)

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baksheesh
Location: Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Continental Asia
Africa map.png
Author: James McLeod-Hatch
Affiliation: alumni, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London


Original text by James McLeod-Hatch

Baksheesh is prevalent across the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Continental Asia; it is even reported in the Balkans. Where translated into English it can be variously described as 'tipping', 'bribery' or 'giving alms', depending on the context (Delahunty 1997 [1]). Often it is simply left untranslated. In its native context, the concept lies somewhere between these three senses, having commonalities with other informal financial practices that result in the 'greasing of the wheels' (see for example entries on l’argent du carburant and všimné/pozornost' in this volume) – although it almost always refers to a cash payment, rather than an exchange of goods or services, especially in modern times (GR Reporter 2014[2]).


The term itself has Persian origins, from the verb bakšīdan – 'to give' (Cannon and Kaye 2001[3]). It appears to have been first described in the English language by Samuel Purchas in 1625, referring to a manuscript dating from 1600 (Purchas in Cannon and Kaye 2001). The Persian term is widely acknowledged to have Sanskrit roots – bkikshaor bheeks, which also have the same meaning as baksheesh (Carstens 2014[4]). Not only is the term listed in English-language dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary , it has migrated to European languages, where it can vary in meaning according to the three broad contexts described above. In the Albanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Macedonian, and Turkish languages, a baksheesh means 'tip' in the conventional Western sense. In Greek, baksisican refer to a gift in general, while in French and German the term ‘bakschisch' means a small bribe. Likewise in Romanian, the term is typically used as a euphemism for a bribe (Carstens 2014: 77 [5]).


The original sense of the term appears to be closely correlated with the concept of alms. Bhiksatana – the Hindu god Shiva’s wandering in search of alms – is first described in the Kurma Purana, a Hindu religious text first appearing in written form between 550-850 AD (Collins 1988[6]). The author of this entry has personally experienced specific requests for baksheesh where no service has been rendered, from street beggars in Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Pakistan and Yemen. Baksheesh as a form of spontaneous and specific generosity is however distinct from zakat , the third Pllar of Islam, which is an annual charitable donation of a proportion of one’s wealth.


Conversely, baksheesh is often encountered as a gratuity, on top of a solicited fee paid for goods or, more commonly, services. In this sense it lies somewhere between a tip and bribery: it is closer to an accepted emolument to facilitate the speedy or higher-quality provision of the desired service. The practice is so commonplace that it is an accepted cultural phenomenon, which Westerners often find peculiar. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, has documented what he saw as the pervasive influence of this practice on all aspects of Indian social and political culture, which he referred to as the ‘Baksheesh Complex’ (Campbell et al. 1995[7]).


For example, in Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries, obtaining a driving licence through the official application process may be sped up with the judicious use of baksheesh , namely small cash incentives to one or more officials involved in the process. It is important to note that this is distinct from simply buying the licence by paying off a single government official. The latter would constitute circumventing the official process entirely, and thus even locals would regard it as bribery. A baksheesh payment will most likely be suggested by the officials who are facilitating the process, although they may also allude to long waiting times or potential complications in the process, in order that the applicant might then volunteer baksheesh to speed things along. The size of the baksheesh payment is modest and (for example in Afghanistan and Yemen) not fixed: it is decided according to the financial status of the applicant. Poorer people would pay less baksheesh than richer people. In some countries, it would appear that the fee is fixed: in Lebanon, for example, the baksheesh for a replacement driving licence was reportedly $7 USD in 1999 (Transparency International 2003[8])


What exactly is considered baksheesh varies according to the country and the context in which it is encountered. In some countries, such as Egypt, tipping a waiter would be considered baksheesh (indeed, in Egypt it common for gratuities to be requested on top of services where Westerners would not usually expect to tip, for example by a taxi driver). In Afghanistan by contrast, tipping a waiter for good service is not considered baksheesh . Such tipping is not an established practice in Afghanistan: in the context of discussions on the concept of corruption with Afghans, locals indicated puzzlement as to why in Western society this practice was widely established. They noted that the waiter did not represent a significant obstacle to the provision of the service, and was paid a salary for his work. For many Afghans, providing a tip to a waiter seems as perverse as bribing an official does to a Westerner.


Baksheesh often falls into a grey area between an innocent gesture showing appreciation of good service, and a corrupt practice to obtain preferential treatment. Nevertheless, sometimes the practice descends into outright bribery. In Afghanistan it is common, especially in rural areas, for policemen to ask for money at security checkpoints. No actual infraction needs to have occurred; indeed, drivers will often pay the policeman a small amount as 'tea money' (which is regarded as distinct from baksheesh ), partly in recognition of their extremely low and ill-disbursed salaries. The amounts are so small that Afghans, who have a culture of charitability, will usually pay if asked, although if someone did refuse they would almost certainly be allowed to proceed with no further hassle. However, some policemen will stop truck drivers from proceeding past a checkpoint until a far more sizeable amount has been paid. In such circumstances, this might euphemistically be referred to as baksheesh, although this is partly shame-avoidance by both parties to disguise what it really is, namely a bribe. Although giving 'tea money' is tiresome, it does not overstep the boundary of what is ethically and culturally acceptable to the same extent as asking for a large sum. Yet in other countries, even small scale 'tea money' is termed as baksheesh : in Morocco, over 80 per cent of business respondents admitting giving baksheesh ‘to avoid hassle’ from traffic police and the gendarmerie (Transparency International 2003: 208[9]).


Baksheesh has thus entered common parlance in many countries to denote outright bribery, and hence can also refer to far larger-scale corruption in business processes – even if culturally it might not be considered as outright ‘bribery’ by locals familiar with the ways of doing business in that environment, or by foreign entities who have operated in the environment long enough to simply consider the practice as necessary to maintain goodwill. (Cavico and Mujtaba 2010[10], Jacoby et al. 1977[11]). Baksheesh poses a dilemma for Western companies operating in countries where it is the norm, as it is often unclear whether it constitutes a ‘corrupt practice’ under anti-corruption laws, for example the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in the USA. The legal implications of baksheesh for such companies are a matter of much debate in the legal and academic literature.


Generally speaking, baksheesh where it is encountered is simply considered to be part of 'doing business', whether it be for a company facilitating a delivery through customs, or an individual seeking a permit (e.g. in Lebanon a building permit for a residential house can cost more than $2000 USD (Della Porta and Vannucci 2012[12]). Cumulatively, however, it can be argued to have a significant retarding effect on an economy. When the Mozambican government clamped down on baksheesh among customs officials (over a hundred customs officials were dismissed for taking baksheesh in 1997), tariff revenues increased by 50 per cent in two years (Economist.com 1999[13]). Yet, despite the large cumulative impact that baksheesh may have on an economy, its effects are not as immediately obvious as those of 'grand' corruption. As such, locals tend to make a conceptual and normative distinction between cash backhanders (bribes) to powerful officials, for example in order to secure a large construction contract (Cavico and Mujtaba 2010[14]), and the multiple smaller payoffs to various low-level officials that allow the construction project to proceed (baksheesh ) – even though the overall effect on the economy may be similarly negative (Transparency International 2013[15]).


Notes

  1. Delahunty, A. 1997. From Bonbon to Cha-cha: Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  2. GR Reporter. 2014. ‘Corruption in Greece is a legacy from Ancient Hellas’, 9 April, http://www.grreporter.info/en/corruption_greece_legacy_ancient_hellas/10977
  3. Cannon, G. and Kaye, A. 2001. The Persian Contributions to the English Language. A Historical Dictionary. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz
  4. Carstens, P. 2014. The Encyclopædia of Egypt during the Reign of the Mehemet Ali Dynasty. Victoria: Friesen Press
  5. Carstens, P. 2014. The Encyclopædia of Egypt during the Reign of the Mehemet Ali Dynasty. Victoria: Friesen Press
  6. Collins, C. 1988. The Iconography and Ritual of Śiva at Elephanta. New York: SUNY Press
  7. Campbell, J., Larsen, R., Larsen, S. and Van Couvering, A. (eds). 1995. Baksheesh and Brahman: Indian Journal, 1954-1955. Michigan: Harper Collins
  8. Transparency International. 2003. Global Corruption Report 2003: Access to Information, http://files.transparency.org/content/download/485/1998/file/2003_GCR_AccessInfo_EN.pdf
  9. Transparency International. 2003. Global Corruption Report 2003: Access to Information, http://files.transparency.org/content/download/485/1998/file/2003_GCR_AccessInfo_EN.pdf
  10. Cavico, F. and Mujtaba, B. 2010. ‘ Baksheesh or Bribe: Payments to Government Officials and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’, Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, 2(1): 83-105
  11. Jacoby, N., Nehemkis P., and Eells, R. 1977. Bribery and Extortion in World Business. New York: Macmillan
  12. Della Porta, D. and Vannucci, A. 2012. The Hidden Order of Corruption: An Institutional Approach. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company
  13. Economist.com. 1999. ‘Maturing Mozambique’, 2 December, http://www.economist.com/node/326951
  14. Cavico, F. and Mujtaba, B. 2010. ‘ Baksheesh or Bribe: Payments to Government Officials and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’, Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, 2(1): 83-105
  15. Transparency International. 2013. Global Corruption Barometer 2013, http://www.transparency.org/gcb2013/report