As chief legal officer in a well-respected company making lifesaving drugs, Gordon Smith was asked by his board of directors to look into rumors of bribery with the firm’s Bosnia contract. The contract, he discovered, had been ordinary in almost every respect: A major relief organization had contracted with his company to supply a million inexpensive kits of medicine for delivery into the war-torn regions of Bosnia. Like most such contracts with charitable organizations, it contained hardly any profit for his firm.
What he found strange, however, was the payment of an extraordinarily large commission to a Romanian distributor to deliver the kits deep into Bosnia. Seeking out the executive in his own firm who had negotiated the contract, he had one question in mind: Was this a bribe?
Yes said the executive, it’s a bribe that we’re paying. According to the Romanian distributor, the backs of the delivery trucks were loaded with the kits — and the glove compartments were stuffed with cash. That way, when the drivers were stopped at roadblocks set up by local militia units operating all across Bosnia, they could pay whatever was demanded and continue their journey. In the past, he noted, drivers without cash had been taken from their trucks and shot. If the kits were to be delivered, this was a cost of doing business.
Gordon felt sure that none of the money had flowed back to the executive, whose only motive was to get the kits delivered. Gordon faced a dilemma. Should he draft a report to the board on this most unorthodox contract? Or should he keep silent?
Everything in Gordon’s background with his company told him that this contract was not the way to do business. Bribery, he knew, was simply unacceptable to the board, who felt strongly that once that barrier was breached, there would be no stopping the shakedowns in the future.
But everything in his makeup as a compassionate being told him that providing medicine for the wounded was of overriding importance, and that the normal ethic of commerce didn’t apply in a war zone.
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Case from the Institute for Global Ethics.