Korapsen (Papua New Guinea)

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Korapsen
Location: Papua New Guinea
PapuaNewGuinea map.png
Author: Grant W. Walton
Affiliation: Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University

Original Text: Grant W. Walton, Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University

Those writing about Papua New Guinea (PNG) sometimes pass off the term korapsen as the local equivalent of the English word ‘corruption’, commonly understood as the ‘abuse of power (or public office) for private gain.’ For example, an article in the international magazine Time conflated the two words and it is assumed that, ‘[e]ven the humblest citizens know what korapsen is’[1]. What is ‘lost in translation’ here is the difference between the local knowledge, embodied in this distinctly Papua New Guinean word korapsen, and the presumed connotations of the increasingly globalised term ‘corruption’. While these homonyms (corruption/korapsen) have some points of overlap, for Papua New Guineans, the local term korapsen has taken on a more informal meaning than its English counterpart.

Officially, there is no equivalent for the word corruption in PNG’s lingua franca, Tok Pisin. The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin[2], the most comprehensive guide on the language, does not include an entry on korapsen. Nor does the more recent Oxford Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin English Dictionary (Baing et al. 2008). In turn, translators have avoided using korapsen in literary works. The Tok Pisin version of the bible, the Buk Baibel, does not appear to use the word. For instance, in the English bible, Isaiah 1:4 reads, ‘Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption.’ This line is translated into: ‘yupela ol manmeri i nogut tru na pasin bilong yu i nogut olgeta[3], where nogut olgeta (completely bad/useless/no good) fills in for the word corruption (John Burton 2009, pers. comm.). Thus, korapsen is quintessentially an informal word, which is most prevalent in its spoken form, rather than in written pidgin. Nevertheless, the term does sometimes appears in print – particularly at the growing number of anti-corruption events and in Tok Pisin news outlets, such as Radio Australia’s Tok Pisin news service and the local PNG paper the Wantok Niuspepa – where it is used to describe behaviour and organisations. As an example of the latter, Zimmermann highlights how the Wantok Niuspepa translates the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Squad to ‘Nesenel Fraud na Enti Korapsen skwat’ (2010: 124).

In analysing results of a household survey conducted with over 1800 respondents, Walton [4] (2015) has shown that many Papua New Guineans associate korapsen with ‘harmful activity’. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, respondents were less likely to equate it to ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. Respondents were presented with nine scenarios which depicted a range of different types and scales of possible corruption. They were asked to rate – on a scale of one to four – the degree to which each scenario was a form of korapsen, harmful or unacceptable. They were more likely to rate scenarios as totally unacceptable, rather than harmful or as korapsen – with the latter two categories appearing highly correlated. This suggests that for many Papua New Guineans korapsen can be acceptable, even though they acknowledge that it causes harm.

The ambivalence that some Papua New Guineans hold towards korapsen became especially apparent in focus group discussions conducted around the country in 2008[5][6][7]. While many respondents defined the term similarly to modern definitions of corruption (the abuse of power for private gain) others, rather courageously, spoke about the functionality of korapsen. When discussing a scenario depicting a candidate bribing a citizen in return for their vote, many argued that such transactions were necessary due to cultural, social and economic pressures. For some, the candidate was not at fault as long as everyone in the community was given money; they believed that this scenario was unacceptable if money only went to a few. Voters themselves are thus actively engaged in such illicit transactions, often demanding that candidates and representatives distribute state largesse directly to the community rather than through the state.

This response needs to be understood in the context of PNG’s communally oriented culture[8]. The vast majority of land in PNG is communally held and cultural norms stress the importance of reciprocity for maintaining relationships. These values often trump the rules and laws of the state, particularly where the state is weak and ineffective[9]. Indeed, respondents in remote areas, particularly women who are often economically and politically marginalised and more engaged in the informal sector, suggested that they would accept money in exchange for their vote because it was one of the few times they benefitted from the state. This resulted in an ambivalence towards korapsen, in that respondents had a sense that it was considered ‘wrong’, but the benefits it brought meant it was often supported.

Korapsen is also tied to more informal activities that do not involve people in positions of power (an important prerequisite for modern definitions of corruption, see Walton 2015[10]). Results from the household survey showed that the scenario most aligned to korapsen involved a woman selling sex and drinking ‘homebrew’ (homemade alcohol). This suggests that korapsen in part reflects the ‘decay definition’ of corruption [11], which has its origins in ancient Greece. Indeed, the ancient Greeks defined corruption as both individual and institutional decay[12][13]. Individual decay includes ‘the corruption of the mind by which the ability to make sound judgments and pursue the good has been impaired’[14]. The strong link between korapsen, prostitution and homemade alcohol suggests the concept is thus strongly linked to individual decay in the minds of many Papua New Guineans.

Institutional decay involves the deterioration of social and political institutions. Again, the focus groups conducted across PNG captured this interpretation. Some respondents said that korapsen occurs when the wantok (Tok Pisin for ‘one talk’) system – a social institution of reciprocity within kinship groups – benefits particular individuals more than the community as a whole. The wantok system has been criticised within PNG for causing corruption; particularly because its focus on maintaining kinship ties means citizens prefer distributing state resources to relatives rather than following state bureaucratic rules. But for some respondents, the wantok system was in decay, not because it challenged the rules of the state, but because it could create inequalities within the community, and thus was not living up to its ideal institutional function. In identifying the wantok system as a form of korapsen in this sense, respondents’ perceptions reflected the institutional side of the decay definition. Thus, while korapsen is a uniquely Papua New Guinean word, it resonates with other interpretations of its root word (‘corruption’) found in pre-modern Western thought.

There might be reservations about seeking to understand korapsen through its vernacular meaning. As homonyms, ‘corruption’ and korapsen are indeed difficult to distinguish. Even speakers of Tok Pisin would find it difficult to articulate whether they were referring to the English or Tok Pisin meaning; and the research[15][16][17] did not try to distinguish the two. However, if one is sensitive to the meaning of korapsen shared by local communities – whereby the definition of the concept is determined by the views of Papua New Guineans – is it easy to see that korapsen and ‘corruption’ are related but distinct concepts. The latter focuses on wrongdoing by those in positions of power, where ‘wrongdoing’ is determined by the rules and laws of the state. In a distinctly Papua New Guinean sense, korapsen is associated with informal practices necessary for the daily workings of the community and reflecting Papua New Guinea’s social, cultural and economic conditions.

Notes

  1. Feizkah, E. 2002. 'Cult of Korapsen', Time World, 22 April, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2047250,00.html
  2. Mihalic, F. 1983. Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin. Hong Kong: The Jacaranda Press
  3. The Bible Society. 1993. Buk Baibel. Port Moresby: The Bible Society Papua New Guinea. p.896..
  4. Walton, G. W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.
  5. Walton, G. W. 2009. Rural Peoples' Perceptions of Corruption in Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby: Transparency International Papua New Guinea
  6. Walton, G.W. 2013. 'Is All Corruption Dysfunctional? Perceptions of Corruption and Its Consequences in Papua New Guinea', Public Administration and Development, 33(3):175-190
  7. Walton, G.W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.
  8. Larmour, P. 2012. Interpreting Corruption: Culture and Politics in the Pacific Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press
  9. Walton, G. W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.
  10. Walton, G. W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.
  11. Walton, G. W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.
  12. Bratsis, P. 2003. 'The Construction of Corruption, or Rules of Separation and Illusions of Purity in Bourgeois Societies', Social Text 77, 21(4): 9-33
  13. Walton, G. W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.
  14. Bratsis, P. 2003. 'The Construction of Corruption, or Rules of Separation and Illusions of Purity in Bourgeois Societies', Social Text 77, 21(4): 9-33, p.12.
  15. Walton, G. W. 2009. Rural Peoples' Perceptions of Corruption in Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby: Transparency International Papua New Guinea
  16. Walton, G.W. 2013. 'Is All Corruption Dysfunctional? Perceptions of Corruption and Its Consequences in Papua New Guinea', Public Administration and Development, 33(3):175-190
  17. Walton, G.W. 2015. 'Defining Corruption Where the State Is Weak: The Case of Papua New Guinea', Journal of Development Studies, 51(1): 15-31.