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Trinidad as a 'Contact Society'
Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2010

By Derren Joseph
August 24, 2010

There has been much discussion around the AG's recent appointment of a five member legal and forensic audit team to investigate certain state enterprises and the call for information from whistleblowers. It recognizes the importance placed on addressing alleged corruption. After all, one can argue that perceived government corruption was at least partly responsible for our last two changes in government. But what exactly is corruption?

Much of our focus as a nation tends to be around public sector procurement. This focus makes sense given that a privately held company is not generally accountable to the wider public for its decisions. At the same time however, public sector corruption can hardly take place without private sector assistance. So the focus needs to be on both the state entities and the members of the private sector who play a facilitating role.

Some argue that we are a "contact society". They go on to say that in Trinidad, everything is about who you know. Personally, my choice of bank branch is driven by who I know working in that branch to help minimize my waiting time. Even my choice of carnival band is influenced by any familiarity we may have with the band's Committee Members. But is this notion of a "contact society" at the heart of corruption?

From my undergraduate days at UWI, I remember having to read Geert Hofstede who contributed much to our understanding of how cultures differ. But it was another, less famous Dutchman, Fons Trompenaars who opened my eyes to this notion of a "contact society". Among the dimensions of culture which he identified to assist us in conceptualizing how cultures differ – one stood out for me. The scale of Universalism vs. Particularism explores the degree to which people believe that various ideas and practices can be effective in all circumstances. So on one hand, societies that are high in universalism believe they can develop rules and standards that can be reasonably applied to everyone in every situation and they rely heavily on contracts, formal systems, and procedures to convey what they expect from others.

On the other hand, societies which are low in universalism or high in particularism develop their expectations of others based on their personal relationships and their trust in relationships rather than on rules. So the theory says that when negotiating deals, people from highly particularistic cultures will want to develop a relationship with the other party before getting down to business. While those from highly universalistic cultures prefer to get down to business quicker, and they expect to document their agreement with an enforceable contract. Trompenaars' studies suggest that the US, Australia, Germany and Switzerland are examples of countries high in universalism. Venezuela, the former Soviet Union's countries, Indonesia and China are examples of nations high in particularism. I suspect that most would agree that generally speaking, Trinidad would score higher in particularism than universalism.

One approach may not be better than another. They are simply different. Two other countries that score high in particularism and low in universalism are Japan and South Korea. As we know, Japan's post war economic expansion was driven by the various Keiretsu. The keiretsu are groups of associated companies usually centered around one bank, which lent money to the keiretsu's member companies and held equity positions in the companies. Wikipedia explains that there are apparently two types of keiretsu - vertical and horizontal. Although the divisions between them have blurred in recent years, there are six major postwar keiretsu: such as the Tokai or Toyota group which is built around the Tokai Bank

In South Korea, the equivalent would be the Chaebols and include well-known international brand names, such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG. So is a contact society or a society that scores high in particularism more "corrupt"? Some would vociferously argue that this is the case and that to completely root out corruption, particularism itself needs to be rooted out.

To be honest, I can see both sides of view. That is, those who want to root it out and those who think it just needs to be controlled. While this debate rages, the definition of corruption that works best for me is the one used by the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute (TTTI) – the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Let us support the TTTI in making our country better. For more details please visit

My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in our country, as we embark upon the next chapter in our nation's history.

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