How do you market construction services effectively in a corrupt environment?

This Transparency International map indicates the severity of the perception of corruption, where "crony capitalism" causes real challenges for anyone wishing to play the game legitimately.
This Transparency International map indicates the severity of the perception of corruption, where “crony capitalism” causes real challenges for anyone wishing to play the game legitimately.

Sometimes I receive questions that truly stump me. With this blog’s international readership, I received an inquiry observing that in his area, procurement rules require purportedly open, public competitive bidding — but corruption is rampant. In other words, there is a veneer of legitimacy and “low bid wins the job” but the game is rigged.

I won’t identify the reader or his country because there is no advantage in drawing attention to an individual living in this environment, but he undoubtedly has described a real problem. In countries like Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., we generally don’t have to worry about corruption in the bidding process. In some cases, the “corruption” isn’t based on evil — I’ve described on other occasions how a contractor working on hospital projects in a local community always submits the low bid and wins the work, because he has an understanding with the hospital administration to accept pre-arranged change orders once the work commences. Obviously, from an outsider’s perspective, this is unfair — but the hospital wants to be confident that the work will be done properly and not snagged by some fly-by-night minimalist organization that will perhaps foist its own unwelcome change orders on the hospital once work gets under-way.

My sense that the way to succeed in these challenging environments, without succumbing to the corruption, requires a combination of finesse and healthy relationship building. Finesse could be described as the art of presenting the story in a creative if not 100 per cent complete manner.

(As an example, in 1978 I used finesse to enter then-Rhodesia to cover the conclusion of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe civil war when foreign journalists were immediately deported.I declared myself to the border guard to be a student, then applied for work at a local newspaper, and once I had the job offer, went to the immigration department saying I had been hired as a trainee. The immigration authorities then issued me a work permit marked “journalist.”)

Relationship-building means to combine sensitivity and respect for the people around you, engaging in generous activities that help others but don’t violate ethical boundaries. You might support community organizations and causes, building a legacy (and network) based on good-will that is totally apparent to everyone, including the perhaps partially corrupt local officials who sign off on contracts. They might then give you the work because they respect you, rather than because you’ve bribed them directly.

It’s hard to explain how to do this properly. I certainly recall a brief meeting with a business leader who has survived in one of the most corrupt nations in the world for more than three decades, apparently retaining his integrity and only occasionally experiencing serious problems with local authorities. I would have loved to ask him how he managed to survive in this environment, but in brief meetings (in the corrupt country) you realize that sometimes asking too many questions can cause more harm than good.

If you have experience in working in corrupt environments, or know someone who has been in these places, I welcome your comments and suggestions. As it is, I could only offer the reader the barest of bones in my answer to his truly valid and important question.

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