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A contemplation on morality

I have just undergone close to two years of great difficulties, with Ugandan and Sudanese staff conspiring to steal $90k of items and money, breaking into my office and stealing from it, taking over the organization illegally, running false articles in the paper alleging amongst other things that I was working with the LRA rebels to keep the war going (when I had actually been requested by the South Sudanese Vice President and Uganda’s Interior Minister, to work with them to teach them conflict resolution and mediation skills in order to help end the war). They illegally established a Ugandan university using the name of the International distance-education university I had helped establish in America, and wrote to students falsely claiming I was a fraudster wanted by Interpol, but that the students could join their university and still receive the same materials (i.e. that they would copy our materials and give them to people who pay them). They also threw me in jail overnight and came up with a number of purely trumped up charges, such as forging our own degree certificates, to turn the table on me after I had reported them to the head of the CID.

The question I have is what is the best way for people in such situations to deal with an environment (working in Africa) where so many people will steal, lie and cheat in order to get what they want?

In my case, I kept my morals. I didn’t bribe police to have them arrest the culprits (apart from a small amount to cover transport, phone calls etc). {However, probably as a result, they were never arrested even though the evidence was very clear.}

I didn’t lie. I didn’t make false accusations against my accusers. Though I received no payment for 1.5 years, I continued working for our students to help them. And eventually I will get through the mess and pick up my life again, and will be content knowing that the corruption of those stealing from me, did not corrupt me.

At the same time, as a result of the difficulties I faced, I was unable to continue with the work I was in the middle of doing in South Sudan (including training the top officials of the new government, to provide them critically needed skills, knowledge, attitudes, understandings, and approaches that could have helped them to lead their country out of war and out of poverty)—which would have helped millions of people.

I couldn’t do the conflict resolution training which might have increased the chance of ending the LRA rebel activity in Uganda which was described by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

And by not fighting the main manager who took over IAL-Uganda, I enabled (or at least didn’t manage to prevent) a situation where he sacked all the honest, hard-working, non-corrupted people in the organisation, and put in his own relatives and friends.

It’s possible that if I had bribed the right people, used thugs to “encourage” the manager and his cronies to do the right thing, and bitterly fought them, then maybe I could have maintained the organization and done the work which could have helped millions of people. (And with 5 present or former heads of the army and police as my students, friends or acquaintances, I had the necessary contacts to use and reward if I chose to.)

And there is an argument that if all the traffic is breaking the speed limit, then the safest and best thing is to travel with the traffic instead of being a stickler for the rules, and possibly making things far more dangerous for yourself and others.

Ten years ago I wrote a thought called “Swimming with the sharks while flying with the angels”. Its basic premise was that you should always try to play fairly and with love, but that if you’re dealing with people who won’t let you do this, then you need to adapt, and temporarily play by the rules of the person you’re playing with—yet being prepared to instantly shift to a higher level as soon as its possible. The example I’d give if I spoke about this thought, was of someone who normally plays soccer, but starts to play Gridiron football. It wouldn’t work to play Gridiron while trying to abide by soccer rules. And its would be silly to complain that other Gridiron players were being unfair to you because they tackled you to the ground.

So I have some openness to the idea that you need to be flexible, and not be too rigidly self-righteous in sticking to lofty principles in an environment that doesn’t support them. And not hitting back at a bully who is hurting many people, may merely encourage bad behaviour.

At the same time, I never felt comfortable changing my morality to the circumstances. And I was concerned that if I did temporarily lower the bar of what I would normally consider appropriate, that my morality, happiness, fulfillment, etc. might be impaired—and that I might not instantly return even when the environment would allow it.

And the reality, too, is that we are all quick to judge others, and to assume that they are doing wrong, while we are always right. (eg. Many Americans are very negative about Muslims, equating them with suicide bombers. Yet they haven’t bothered to understand why a suicide bomber may be prepared to give his life to fight America. And many haven’t drawn the important distinction between a religion that means peace and submission, and the small number of violent followers—just as there are violent Christians such as the Klu Klux Clan, the IRA etc.) So if everyone felt its OK to lower one’s morality to the prevailing circumstances—to fight evil with evil, or fire with fire—then this may merely plunge us to deeper depths of disorder and immorality.

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I have just been speaking with one of the most senior judges in the country. His advice was that if you’re running a business in Uganda then you need to play by Ugandan rules. And that includes evading tax (or otherwise you won’t be able to compete with others), giving bribes to tax officials and to those awarding contracts, and even bringing in counterfeit merchandise (eg Chinese televisions labelled as though they are original Sony televisions). He felt that if you weren’t prepared to do this, then you probably wouldn’t make any money, and would probably go broke.

While I appreciate his point, I felt that taking this approach on board would really corrupt you. You might start with offering bribes—not to bias the contract awarding decision making unfairly in your favour—but to counteract the likelihood that you won’t get the contract no matter how good your product is, if you don’t bribe. And this would seem appropriate—and may result in the government buying good products from you instead of bad products from someone who doesn’t care about what they are offering.

Then the next step is likely to be figuring that if you don’t evade tax then you won’t be able to compete with those who do evade tax. I could appreciate this logic.

But then if you continue on the same path, you also might decide to offer counterfeit goods—which really is immoral.

And maybe you even go further. Lets say your competitors beat up people they feel are a threat to their profitability. Then are you also going to beat up people so that you—a “relatively honest” person don’t go broke and leave all the business to them?

And if you’ve stooped this low, then surely the low level of morality you practice in business will become a part of who you are as a person.

And if lying becomes normal, then you will even start lying to your friends, family, and even worse… to yourself. And if you can’t trust yourself, then your life is in real difficulties.

So what is the right answer? Should one always stick to the very highest morals, regardless of the circumstances and the costs?

Probably. For in the end, you’re the one who will always be living with yourself. If you lose some money or goods, then you haven’t lost much. But if you lose your integrity, and the meaning in your life, then you’ve lost everything.

What do you think?

- Tony Lenart (

P.S. One distinction that may be useful is to respond to evil when appropriate, but not to be proactive in playing a lower-level game. e.g. If someone comes into a class-room with a machine gun, intending to kill everyone, then your responding by killing him may be the most appropriate thing to do, but you definitely shouldn’t kill people except as a response in such an extreme situation. A less extreme example is that if a likely murderer asks you where the person is that he wants to kill, then the appropriate response should be to lie, but this should only be in response to such a situation, not a normal way of being.

© Copyright 2007, The Institute of Advanced Leadership ( All rights reserved. Last updated 10 June 2007
Note: The Institute of Advanced Leadership (Uganda) was established by the Institute of Advanced Leadership (Australia) but is now operating autonomously and IAL (Australia) is no longer associated with it in any way.

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