Keep it in the family

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am

Nepotism is surely the dirtiest word in democracies. The mere whiff of a relative or friend being given advantage through appointment to a position of authority by a leader sparks a media cry that the very core of democracy is being eroded. There was such outrage from some quarters this week when election results in Argentina showed Cristina Kirchner would succeed her husband, Nestor, as president. Similar concerns are being expressed in the proudest democracy of all, the United States, that Hillary Clinton will in little more than a year follow the lead of her husband, Bill, in ascending to the presidency.

Speculation is rife that an era of political dynasties is under way in the US, with the Clintons following the lead of President George W. Bush and his father, ex-president George H.W. Bush. Americans are generally unfazed. As was the case with Argentinians, only media commentators and those with an opposite political viewpoint are fretting about such a possibility.

The reason is simple: nepotism can be good, just as it can be bad. To point-blank contend it is wrong based on this or that example is to ignore just as many cases where it has been a blessing for a country, organisation or company.

US book editor Adam Bellow, author of In Praise of Nepotism and son of the late writer Saul Bellow, put nepotism down to our inherent tribal mentality. Without relatives supporting and helping one another, humanity would have been doomed at the outset.

Nepotism is particularly rife in Asia and Africa, where Bellow contends that tribalism has been overlaid by western-style democracy to produce dynastic politics. This resulted in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of India, the Bhuttos of Pakistan and the Bandaranaikes of Sri Lanka.

In Asian languages, the closest word to nepotism generally has a positive meaning. In Chinese, it implies a 'circle of family' - which raises the question of why the west perceives the term so negatively.

Put it down to the Catholic Church declaring in 1692 an end to the practice of popes appointing male relatives to positions of power; the French revolution in 1789; and the graft and family links in companies widely perceived to have caused the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929.

Add the codes of conduct for governments, organisations, companies and schools, which, since they began appearing in the 19th century, have sought to stop relatives and close friends from working together. The reasoning is that such connections give unfair advantage to people who may not warrant such treatment. In the public sphere, the perception is that nepotism undermines the common good.

This is not necessarily the case. Hong Kong blue chip firms Cheung Kong, New World and Hutchison Whampoa are among a long list of companies proving that family-run can be a highly successful formula. But there is more to success than a family living and breathing business or politics. Also count genes.

There is ample proof of this in the sporting world. Family connections may get you noticed, but to be good you have to be - well, good. That takes skill, determination and genetics - as is clearly shown in US major league baseball player Barry Bonds, the son of major league all-star Bobby, British soccer players and managers Brian Clough and son Nigel, American footballing father and son Tony and Anthony Dorsett, and boxers Muhammad Ali and daughter Laila.

There was dismay in the US in 1961 when newly elected president John F. Kennedy appointed his brother, Robert, as attorney-general. That outrage has been forgotten: Kennedy is now remembered as one of America's greatest leaders. So, too, is Franklin Roosevelt, cousin of Theodore Roosevelt.

Mrs Kirchner has vowed to continue the vibrant economic and social policies of her husband. The same hopes are being offered by Mrs Clinton. Nepotism has had too much bad press. For those of us conditioned to see it as a dirty word, let us open our minds to the possibility that it can be beneficial.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor