Sony Lebrun stands at the small, smoking grill – green shirt, silver neck chain, tattooed arms. We’re in Caradeux, one of the biggest slums in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. I’m tired after a long day of walking and sink gratefully onto the plastic stool he pushes my way with his foot.

I don’t know it yet, but he’s about to tell me what charities have been doing wrong for years, why he’s still living in poverty, and how we can save the world.

"Do you live here?" I ask.

"Yes, over there." He points his spoon at a shack with a corrugated roof, walls made from advertising signs, and a window – unusual for this neighbourhood – salvaged from a bus, frame and all.

"Have you been here long?"

"Since the earthquake."

Yet Lebrun – – still lives below the poverty line.

"If you could name one thing that would really change your life, what would it be?" I ask. I’m expecting him to say a better house, or more food, or a doctor, or education for his kids. I’m expecting him to mention one of the things relief money often provides for.

But Lebrun grins broadly at me, revealing a missing tooth, and says, "What would help me most? A land registry."

I assume I’ve misheard.

he repeats, smiling.

A land registry. An agency where you can officially affirm that the land you’re building your house or planting your food on is your own. Lebrun would love to build a brick house, he says. He wants to save up for the materials. But what if someone shows up at his door one day claiming to own the land? His savings would be gone in a heartbeat.

What Lebrun needs is security – security he can build a future on. And he needs agencies to safeguard that security. What Lebrun needs is bureaucracy.

A male, Indian tax inspector sits at a desk covered with a floral print cover. A calculator and files with handwritten calculations are placed in front. He’s holding a pen and wears a white shirt, a beige cap and a dark-blue woollen vest. Behind him are shelves and cupboards bursting with files and sacks full of paperwork. The top of the cupboard is stacked with more paperwork, some of it in red sacks. They reach so high that they’re blocking the ventilator fan that’s fastened to the ceiling.
Surinder Kumar Mandal, circle inspector of taxes in Thakurganj block, collecting taxes in a specific part of Kishanganj district, Bihar state, India. Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, India, 2003.

Bureaucracy? Really?

When you look up the b-word on Merriam-Webster.com, two of the three listed definitions aren’t exactly inspiring. Here’s definition 1: "a: a body of nonelective government officials; b: an administrative policy-making group." And definition 3 is worse: "a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation".

That’s bureaucracy in its infamous guise: endless forms, pen-pushers, file cabinets, boring reports. Bureaucracy is pointless complexity, long waits, going from pillar to post. Bureaucracy: the less of it there is, the better.

But hang on. Look at definition 2: "government characterised by specialisation of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority". Bureaucracy is also the system that organises everything into procedures that are the same for everybody. It’s what holds societies together. It’s not excessive; it’s indispensable.

Think about it. Bureaucracy is the office where you go to get a building permit. It’s the agency that helps you set up a small business quickly and easily. It’s the reliable statistics office that ensures government policies are based on sound data. Bureaucracy, in short, is all the fundamental building blocks of civilisation some people have the luxury of taking for granted.

Female, smiling liaison officer sitting at a large desk. The desk has a calculator, some books, a landline and office supplies on it. The woman is wearing a thick, magenta winter jacket. On the left hand side we see a plant in front of the window. The wall is adorned with a Chinese map. At the back there’s a green armchair and another desk is being used as storage for files and a tray with paperwork.
Wang Ning works in the economic affairs office in Gu Lou community, Yanzhou city, Shandong province, China. She provides economic assistance to enterprises in her region and is the liaison officer between the government and local enterprises. She helps them get a permit for land use, insurances, permits and taxation registration. Photo: Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, China, 2007.
A Liberian male administrator sits at a sparse, dark brown desk. He’s wearing a t-shirt with a vote slogan and turquoise flip flops. There’s a leather bag on the desk. A flag is fastened to the wall behind him. Wooden tables and benches surround both sides of the desk.
Warford Weadatu S, a former farmer and mail carrier, now is county commissioner (administrator) for Nyenawliken district, River Gee county, Liberia. He has no budget and is not expecting any money soon from the poverty-stricken authorities in Monrovia. Photo: Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, Liberia, 2006.

Let’s hear it for bureaucracy

These days, a westerner can hardly imagine how complicated the world would be without bureaucracy. But try to picture it: living without an address, without a social security number. Could you open a bank account? No. Start a business? No way. Register to vote? Never.

And yet,

And imagine having no proper tax authority. Without one, a government loses out on billions of dollars of potential revenue. There’s no money for social services or infrastructure. People living in poverty stay living in poverty.

Imagine a world without deeds of ownership – papers that prove you own your house, your car, the goods you’re selling. For people living in poverty in developing countries, these papers are almost impossible to get. The Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto made a valiant attempt. Registering the homes of people living in poverty in the Philippines sometimes took 13 years and sometimes 25, with a total of 168 separate steps. In Egypt, 77 steps involving 31 offices were required to secure a building permit.

In fact, people living in poverty own much more than they’re able to prove on paper. In Cairo, for example, they have $241.4bn worth of unregistered property, according to De Soto. In his book The Mystery of Capital (2000), he puts this figure into perspective: it’s six times all the money held in Egyptian savings accounts, 30 times the market value of every publicly listed company in Cairo, and 116 times the value of all Egypt’s privatised former state companies.

It is, in short, a vast sum. And yet it’s of limited use to those living in poverty. Without papers proving ownership, you can’t record the sale of your property or use it as collateral to secure a loan.

The evidence is ample: bureaucracy – and the security that comes with it – is what people living in poverty need to climb out of poverty.

Texan, female deputy clerk sits at a wooden desk. She wears a short-sleeved blouse from jeans fabric. She has long, curly, brown hair. On the desk is a computer, loud speakers, a black filing system and a name plate with her name/job title. We see the edge of another clerk’s desk separated with a cream-coloured partition. The wall behind has some shelves filled with thick guideline books. US voting paraphernalia decorates the wall, including a mounted floor mat showing a heart-shaped US flag.
Shannon Crenshaw, deputy clerk at the county clerk’s office in Linden, Cass County (some 30,000 inhabitants), Texas. Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, US, 2007.

Donating bureaucracy

Development organisations are starting to take notice. Along with food, schoolbooks and mosquito nets, one agency after the other has started donating paperwork, Excel sheets and bookkeeping courses. They call it "capacity building".

For instance, sends idealistic experts from the group Tax Inspectors Without Borders to help developing countries. Because developing nations don’t just suffer from a shortage of tax inspectors: they also often lack the knowledge needed to bring crafty multinationals to invest in the country.

British tax veteran Lee Corrick went to Kenya in 2011 to train local inspectors. For years, the Kenyan tax office had had problems with a big multinational company – something to do with tea auction licence rights and letters of credit. It sounds overly complicated, and the Kenyans thought so too. But after two workshops with Corrick and a stern talk with the multinational, the Kenyan tax office managed to collect $23m. In fact, revenues from Kenyan tax inspections doubled after Corrick came to town. And in Colombia, the take increased tenfold after training.

And the effects of Lebrun’s longed-for land registry are being studied in a growing number of developing countries.

In one area, farmers’ land was officially added to a land registry; in another, it wasn’t. The researchers then looked at how the farmers used their land.

Here’s what they found: farmers who owned their land on paper invested more. For example, they more often planted trees, such as oil palms, that would continue to provide income all their lives. And since they no longer feared their land would be snatched out from under them, they spent less time guarding it. That left them more time to do other things – like earn money. Similar results have been seen in   and 

Male administrator in Yemen sitting at his desk covered with paperwork and a calculator. He holds a pen and a cigarette. He has dark hair and a moustache and wears a watch, a khaki-coloured jacket with a light-brown shirt underneath. There’s a filing cabinet next to the desk with big folders stacked on top. There’s a large niche in the wall in the right corner of the room, filled to the brim with brownish stacks of papers and files.
Tofik Aylt Al-Harazi studies accountancy at the University of Dhamar and is responsible for qat tax in the Yarim district, governorate Ibb. Practically all the men in Yemen chew qat leaves on a daily basis. Photo: Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, Yemen, 2006.
Russian secretary sits at a light-brown wooden desk. She has brown, shoulder-length hair in a perm. She wears a black skirt and a loose, black blouse with a fine, white pattern and black pumps. The desk is covered with some paperwork, a word processor, some stationery and plants. There’s a water dispenser and the office has brown-reddish carpet. The window’s white blinds are half-open and give way to a view of snow-covered landscape with some houses.
Marina Nikolayevna Berezina, a former singer and choir director, is now the secretary to the head of the financial department of Tomsk province’s facility services. Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, Russia, Siberia, 2004.

Why doesn’t Haiti have a land registry?

The big question, then, is: why, in spite of all the aid money and relief organisations, does Haiti still not have a land registry? If development economists and people living in poverty like Lebrun are calling for bureaucracy outright, why doesn’t everyone – aid organisations, governments, companies – get behind it 100%?

The answer is simple. Bureaucracy is boring.

To convince people to donate money and persuade taxpayers their money is being well spent, you need pretty pictures. A TV ad showing a sweetly smiling Haitian girl who’s just got her first school uniform works better than one with a blah bureaucrat in a fluorescent-lit office drawing lines on paper with a ruler. And so all too often, capacity building remains the neglected stepchild.

But the truth is, real progress is a gradual, thoroughly bureaucratic, deadly dull process. Saving the world isn’t sexy.

We need to update our image of what it looks like to change the world. The superheroes aren’t the people handing out well-intentioned teddy bears to smiling toddlers; they’re the nondescript worker bees printing out forms in grey offices.

Yes, it’s invisible work. Yes, it’s boring. But the people who will genuinely save the world won’t have throngs of kids hanging on their superhero capes. The people who will save the world will sit hunched over heaps of files, stamping one certificate after another, sporting an office pallor. The people who will save the world will give Lebrun what he wants: the bureaucratic security he needs to build a future.

It was translated from the Dutch by Laura Martz and Erica Moore.

Female town clerk sits at a worn, wooden desk. She wears jeans and a navy blue, striped cardigan over a white, collared t-shirt. The desk has a yellow filing system filled with paper and envelopes. We also see a calculator and a closed laptop. There’s a copy machine and a fax machine at the back of the office. A pole with the French flag leans against the corner. A large, light-grey WWI memorial artwork made of marble, with engraved names of deceased soldiers and civil persons, is attached to the wall.
Laurence Maillard works seven hours per week as town clerk in Ambrief (population 72), Aisne department, Picardy region. She holds the same position in another village nearby, working a total of 19 hours per week. Photo: Jan Banning / Fontana Gallery, France, 2008.
About the images Jan Bannings’s extensive typology of bureaucrats shows a cultural phenomenon that we all seem to have in common in some shape or form: an answer to the question of how to organise large groups of people. This comparative photographic study captures the culture, rituals and symbols of state civil administrations and their servants in eight countries selected on the basis of political, historical and cultural considerations: Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen. In each country, Banning visited up to hundreds of offices, with different services and at different levels. It might not be the most exhilarating topic a photographer has ever researched, but it is one of the most universal: it shows both the need for and the difficulty of mass-scale organisation. (Lise Straatsma, image editor) See more pictures from this series Not a member of The Correspondent yet? The Correspondent is a member-funded, online platform for collaborative, constructive, ad-free journalism. Choose what you want to pay to become a member today! Click here to join our unbreaking news movement!

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Watch Maite’s Ted Talk on the best way to make the world a better place Why saving the world is actually really boring Watch it here! Photo of a blue tube on the left, throwing a small blue ball onto a white, round platform held in place by a blue string. The blue string is whirled around three wooden circular pegs, handing in various places on a vertical, rectangular white wooden board with holes in it. The string is connected on the right to the nozzle of a blue spray bottle. The blue and white kitchen checked kitchen towel hanging to the right of the picture has a blue spray stain on it. A little less automation, a little more friction, please In the age of self-driving cars, autoplay TV shows, and beverages that contain all your nutrients, merchants of efficiency grow rich while we lose skills and control over our time. It’s time to make our lives a little less efficient. Read Sanne Blauw’s piece here