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The Book About Corruption You Should Read Immediately

Matt Kelly | February 21, 2012

We haven't had a meeting of the Compliance Week book club for a while, so let me recommend a title that all ethics and compliance officers should read immediately: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. (Random House, 298 pps, $27.)

I'll start with the literary praise Boo deserves. She tells the tale of everyday life in Annawadi, a slum next to the Mumbai international airport in India, and the petty hardships and corruption that overrun the lives of the people who live there. The plot centers on one woman falsely accusing her neighbors of a crime, but that's only one of many calamities that keep pulling everyone back into the mire of poverty where they've lived for so long. What's more, while Boo's story reads like a novel, it is indeed a work of nonfiction; all the characters are real people, and the travails the book recounts actually happened to them from 2008 through 2011. Boo occasionally mentions larger events, such as the rise of a globalized India or the Al Qaeda terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008. But mostly the story dwells on real people in India's poorest places, trying to manage their way through life like the rest of us do.

As I've found with other books about India, the color and imagery of life in the slums is spell-binding. You see so many characters, doing so many things, experiencing so many circumstances that strike Westerners as bizarre, that the book is riveting. The tragedies spin forth on multiple levels: small setbacks that thwart everyday goals, and giant forces that confine so many people to suffer so much. Minor characters commit suicide because of their bleak futures. Main characters suffer one pain after the next as others exploit them. The book has no final triumph or final defeat for its characters. Life simply plods forward, in all its plain, bleak circumstance.

The one pervasive theme in Behind the Beautiful Forevers—and the one ethics and compliance officers should contemplate deeply—is corruption, and its debilitating effects on a person's efforts to better his circumstance. It's no secret that India is rife with corruption, from top to bottom. But rarely do we get such a real, vivid reminder of what corruption does to people. Not only do we see demands for bribes keep people in poverty; we see people eventually stop caring about doing the right thing because they simply have to find a way to provide a living for themselves and their families. Their poverty makes “doing the right thing” a luxury they can never afford.

We here in the United States, corporate headquarters of the world, worry all the time about differences in culture that make corporate conduct so difficult to manage. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a powerful reminder that for most of the world, the most intrinsic, and endemic, part of a person's culture is poverty. That is what drives their thoughts and decisions, and they often ignore the ethical choice simply because the other choices help to ward off hunger, or cold, or illness more effectively. You can't fault people for that when poverty is the only circumstance they know.

Boo often mentions “the overcity” of India—the successful, globalized part of Mumbai that doesn't even see the slums, much less understands what happens there. Make no mistake, everyone reading these words right now is part of that overcity. We are the Westerners who fly into the airport that surrounds Annawadi, and then ignore it as we take car services to our meetings. The very title refers to advertisements emblazoned on the walls that surround Annawadi so the elite of India won't have to see it.

I have no doubt that ethics and compliance officers want to break through those walls, reach those workers, and help them find ways to end the terrible toll that corruption imposes. (That quest to give people more ways to do the right thing is one of the reasons I enjoy working at Compliance Week so much, frankly.) But we have the luxury of contemplating those efforts in theory; Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a jolting tale of how hard it is to succeed in practice.