Airbus has just been fined NZ $5 billion for bribing purchasers, and rightly so. That’s serious money appropriate for a serious crime. In particular it levered a huge advantage to Airbus over their currently troubled principal rival Boeing. If Boeing had been the offender, then they’d not only have copped a similar fine but under American law, their officials would have done a decent term of imprisonment.

That wasn’t always the case though as this anecdote reveals. In April 1978 with an equally zealous fly-fishing girlfriend, we arrived in Kabul the day before the Marxist coup. We went there to fish for brown trout in the jutting north eastern strip of land lying between western Kashmir and Tajikistan. The new regime promptly banned our travel there so we hung about for four days before shooting through to Turkey as I’d been to Kabul a few years earlier and exhausted its sightseeing potential. In the hotel I befriended an elderly American Boeing Vice-President, there for the formal signing ceremony, Boeing having sold the Afghan airline some new jets. He told me this was an enjoyable sinecure position in which he carried out this role throughout the third world. On the second night he returned in a dazed state. Apparently, when he moved the discussion to the necessary bribe payment arrangements, the new purist regime expressed horror and refused to accept them. The Boeing bloke said this had never happened anywhere else in his career.

When the Americans, to their enormous credit, led the way in making bribing foreign officials a serious crime, there was a huge hue and cry. It will be impossible for us to sell anything their exporters protested. In the event that didn’t occur as under American pressure to assure a competitive level playing field, all other western nations subsequently introduced similar legislation.

As for the Afghan new communist regime, the other crime they committed, apart from banning me fishing, was embarking on a mass murdering of their people. But on the credit side they banned religion so they weren’t entirely bad.

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West’s high falutin moral stance on bribery has just ensured Chinese ascendency in infrastructure development in the developing world. Western companies all at near insurmountable disadvantage in competing, western economies hurt, developing world economies not helped. Seems that the ethical choice does more harm than good.

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