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Negotiat* AND Extort*


I study the topic of negotiating with extortionist government functionaries. For the last couple of years, I have been casting upon the waves of the www my particular search line, “Negotiat* AND Extort*”, expecting to locate stories about other people who negotiate with extortionist government functionaries. During all this time, I have gotten between three and ten hits a week; but until today, all of those stories were about how a particular negotiation is extortionate and mean-hearted, or how what someone calls “extortion” is actually just hardball negotiating, or mostly just stories that contain the unconnected words “negotiation” and “extortion”. It has been boring.

One day*, however, I finally caught the fish I was looking for in an article called “In Central African Republic You Pay for Justice”, by Katy Glassborow, for the Human Rights Tribune, www.humanrights-geneva.info (2009/5/19). The story starts out, “’There are no exceptions, everyone has to pay (money) for justice in this country,’ the senior police officer tells us flatly.”

Ms. Glassborow’s bag, money, passport and other important documents has just been stolen, and a senior police officer has asked her to pay around US$20 to register the crime (there is an additional $12 to investigate the crime).

Ms. Glassborow (a UK citizen) begins asking questions: “How much do you charge [a rape victim] to register the crime she has suffered?” Answer: US$2. After some other questions, she asks “whether justice is simply unaffordable . . . [i]n a country where most people make less than a dollar a day?” “The officer is so incensed that she rips up the crime register form and walks away.”

Ms. Glassborow then brings the UK Honorary Counsel into the negotiation. “He works a miracle – we can go back the next day to collect the salvaged paperwork, and pay the [US$ 20] with smiles and handshakes.” [N.B. – as a negotiating tactic, nothing new here, just someone submitting to an extortionate demand.] 

“Meanwhile, we resign ourselves to never getting our stolen bag back.” “People advise swinging by [a radio station] … to ask them to put out an appeal for us.” “The helpful . . . journalists broadcast a newsflash appealing for our stolen passports, and a day later a young man . . . turns up with them – without the money . . . . He wants [US$40] in return for the documents.”

“After a long awkward negotiation, we agree to give him enough money for the return taxi ride.”

This story has some interesting twists. (1) An initial negotiation tactic, based on embarrassing questions, which ends with the extortionist functionary breaking off negotiations. (2) Involvement of a higher authority figure outside the local government hierarchy, who takes for granted that bribes must always be paid, and who helps the victim submit to the initial extortion demand. (3) “People” (apparently not in anyone’s hierarchy) who suggest a different strategy – to send out a lost/stolen-articles announcement over the local radio. (4) Finally, a “long, awkward negotiation” with the finder (possibly a police officer) of the stolen documents, which leads to the return of the documents at the cost of paying for the finder’s return taxi ride.

We will probably never know what was said during the “long, awkward negotiation” that led to the return of the documents without submitting to extortion. What we do learn is that simply asking embarrassing questions as a negotiation technique can kill a negotiation with an extortionist functionary; that bribing the government official does not necessarily result in the return of the victim’s documents; that official claims and experienced ex-pat beliefs about bribery are not necessarily right or true when we are seeking a practical and ethical solution; that we need to open our minds to other creative options when confronting government extortion; and, finally, that some negotiation techniques do work in different situations. Successful options sometimes come from “people” as opposed to authorities or experts –“people” whom we refer to as Positive Deviants , that is, people who handle a problem in a healthy way, when most other people in the community act in a way that harms them, their families, and their neighbors. 

For purposes of fair reporting, Ms. Glassborow notes that “the minister of territorial administration resolutely denied that there was a widespread practice of citizens having to pay police to investigate crimes.”

P.S. If any reader believes that paying for half of a government official’s local transportation expense in this situation is a bribe, then I think we could hold an interesting discussion in the comments section.


Maria Jose Arias