The leader of Mexico’s powerful teacher’s union, Elba Esther Gordillo, was recently arrested on charges of embezzling millions of dollars. The details are still coming out, but apparently Gordillo used public money to fund houses in California, cosmetic surgery, and even a hefty Neiman Marcus account. The numbers vary widely, but authorities were recently tipped off when a suspicious transfer of $200 million dollars funded the personal accounts of 3 individuals in the teachers union.
Now, what’s astounding about this story is the sheer volume of money. Authorities believe that over Gordillo’s 20 years in Mexican politics, she may have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars. This is no single Rolex watch, or even the theft of $750,000 dollars for personal expenses (like Jesse Jackson Jr recently pleaded to). This is widespread, institutional corruption. Figures like Gordillo, one of Latin America’s most powerful women, are rarely if ever called out for their crimes. Gordillo was a “kingmaker” for her ability to turn out votes on election day; yet she was also the figure who systematically blocked education reform for nearly two decades.
For those who work in development, corruption is often the impossible barrier. My friend recently did a job creation project in Haiti. Having worked previously in other parts of Latin American, he had to ask why shipping a container to the US costs 5 times more in Haiti than in does from the much-farther Colombia. From Asia to Africa, the diverting of public funds for personal use is often the single biggest challenge to those working in economic development. Vibrant economies need roads, sewer lines, and electricity, as well as transparent rules for business. When corruption takes place, people suffer.
Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke points out that the very definition of righteous people is that they disadvantage themselves to advantage others, while “the wicked…are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.”
This definition of righteousness is useful. First, it is public in nature. Being righteous is not just about private morality (though that’s there as well); it involves a relationship to the community. Second, it is deeply Christian. On the cross, Jesus “disadvantaged himself” by sacrificing his life that others might be “advantaged” – eternally. The wicked (Ms. Gordillo would be a good example) take from the community to advantage themselves.
Last week I had breakfast with a man who could be Ms. Gordillo’s opposite. Mario Hernandez is the Director of Public Affairs for Western Union. He’s originally from Taxco, Mexico. He rose to prominence through education (his did his masters at the London School of Economics, and is ABD at the University of Denver in International Affairs). He’s worked tirelessly to promote economic opportunities for immigrants in the US. He also spearheaded Mexico’s innovative 4+1 Program. The 4+1 Program combines public money from the Mexican government with private money (primarily from Mexican immigrants who want to send money home to help their family) to build social infrastructure. Through this program, literally thousands of jobs have been created in Mexico, thus providing opportunities to those who otherwise would likely emigrate to find jobs. Mario Hernandez is a modern day Nehemiah, using his position of influence to go back and “rebuild the walls.”
What if the idea of “disadvantaging yourself to advantage others” became the simple code for political leaders, both abroad and in America? This would redefine public service. Self-glorifying campaigns would focus on the issues, much needed social welfare programs would become sustainable, and communities would flourish. Yet perhaps there’s a better question:
Discussion Question: In your company or organization, what would it look like to “disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others?”