Contribution by Thomas Vacher,
3rd-year student in ESSCA’s Bachelor of International Business Development.
In 1869, after ten years of construction, the Suez Canal opened. Nearly 170kms of digging in the rock across Egypt from the Red to the Mediterranean Sea strengthened the stream of globalisation. Today, the Canal is a yearly pass for almost 20,000 of the biggest ships on the planet. It is by the experience and the testimony of some of those ships that it gained the emblematic nickname of ‘’Marlboro Canal’’.
The first idea of this post was to provide information and warn about the situation. But after fact-checking on the subject, it occurs that all we can be entirely sure about concerning the Marlboro Canal is: ‘’it exists’’. As a result, this post will mostly be a call for reflection, with – I hope – not too many digressions. In addition, I cannot recommend you enough to consult the MACN (Maritime Anti-Corruption Network) website or the video of Stupid Economics in collaboration with Le Monde to complete this reading.
Even if it sounds obvious, the simple question ‘’Why Marlboro Canal?’’ is an interesting one. The name comes from the habit taken by the Suez supervisors to collect boxes of cigarettes in exchange of forgetting controls. Today, usually seen as a tradition, it seems normal for a crew / company to have its ship stopped for few days if no cigarettes are being dealt.
When I said that the question was interesting, it is because of what the fact of dealing cigarettes implies for both sides (canal authorities and ships). First, we must know that we are talking here about ‘’facilitation payments’’ rather than « bribes ». These are defined as payments which do not imply in exchange a non-deserved service but enable a faster processing of a service already due. Even if facilitation payments are illegal in many countries, and sometimes are considered just like bribes in laws such as in the Bribery Act in the UK, they are rather common and can easily become a routine. And that’s one of the first issues. When a ship costs around $25,000 a day, it seems ridiculous to spend just a few hundred dollars to avoid costly days of interruption. And that’s how a routine emerges.
Of course, this could be considered a petty issue. We know that the global merchandise transit is full of those kinds of payment. And when controls are already conducted at the departure and arrival of every ship, we could assume that no important illegal merchandise are passing though the net of the Suez Canal (we will not develop the subject of illegal merchandises here).
This being said, one of the biggest problems I could see while researching about the subject, was a human issue. Some witnesses of the situation are usually talking about the important pressure put on the shipping crew by the authorities. Because they know they hold the power on the situation, they sometimes have the habit to proceed to racket, beyond the usual facilitation payment. The consequences are bad experiences for shipping crews, and the creation of a global stress about the Suez Canal. We could start a reflection about the impact of specific human behavior patterns on global situations, but it might lead too far in this post.
So here comes the next question: why not simply put an end to it? It seems obvious that fighting corruption is never an easy task. When it is ingrained in the habits of authorities and shipping crews, you cannot stop corruption by a simple snap. But we can think that for a such a massive transit pass, used by the biggest companies in the world, it could be easier to trigger processes for change.
Over the years, however, the biggest resistance to change has come from the Egyptian Government. The Suez Canal is – and rightly so – a pride for the country. I guess (and I insist on the fact that it is my own assumption) this is the main reason why the Suez Canal Authority, an Egyptian public organisation, is covering most of the incidents linked to corruption. As an example, an Egyptian shipper exposed on Facebook a testimony about the situation on the canal, about authorities asking for 17 cartons of cigarettes and some other little things on the ship. The information was deleted from Facebook, the shipper was imprisoned for this testimony.
So, is there any solution for the situation? I would say that theoretically, there are always solutions for everything (very inspiring, I know). But for the situation of the Marlboro Canal, concrete solutions must be found at every stage. And this is true for most of the places where corruption is widely present. For a global solution, many companies of transport, freight, and consultancy provide advice and trainings about the situation for the shipping crews. The Canadian company WSP Global, for example, provides a freely accessible document about identifying, facing, and reporting all type of corruption.
For the Marlboro Canal, the MACN launched in 2015 the ‘’say no’’ campaign, a campaign which is primarily aiming at improving the safety of the crews. And in my opinion, this type of situation could not be solved only with threats to government and big action against big organizations. When it comes, like in this case, to human issues, the solution should have a human size. Those type of initiatives, like the one of the MACN and WSP Global could be good, or at least not bad, solutions. They spread the idea of breaking a non-acceptable routine, and suggest that everyone should take the habit of saying no.
One of the scariest parts of corruption is that it is impossible to know its exact scale. And maybe because the international freight grew faster than the security and control processes were developed, we are now facing those kinds of situation. In 2018, South Korea has been chosen to host the next International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC). With certainly the subject of Marlboro Canal appearing this year for the 150th anniversary of the Canal, the 19th IACC in 2020 would lead to more interrogations, investigations, and answers. More to follow.