The Expert Explains: Can social media help tackle corruption in Africa?
As many African countries continue to languish at the bottom of international league tables for corruption, can ‘grass roots’ social media campaigns supported by citizens succeed where ‘top down’ approaches have failed? This month a new online reporting platform called ‘IPaidABribe’ has been launched in Ghana, but will the right lessons be drawn from similar initiatives in India and Pakistan, and should it be rolled out across African countries? For those who wish to dig deeper, here’s the explanation, straight from the desk of our expert guest contributor, Samantha Seewoosurrun, a reputed professional consultant in the financial services sector.
If we look at Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014, the figures for many African countries are pretty dire, and would cause any rational investor to think twice. The best of the bunch is Botswana which is ranked in 31st place internationally, as compared to Mauritius which is ranked in 47th place, and Somalia is considered as almost the worst in the world in 174th place out of 175. Ghana falls somewhere in between in 61st place.
In terms of the wider picture across Africa, the 2014 Index shows that “the majority of African countries still have a score of less than 50% which depicts a situation of endemic corruption” and that there is no fundamental change in the results compared with previous years. This situation is seen as inhibiting the transformation of economic growth into development dividends for all citizens, preventing them from enjoying improved livelihoods and living conditions.
So if it is right that African citizens are themselves suffering the consequences of widespread corruption, is there are a chance that ‘grass roots’ campaigns waged via social media tools can help? This month a new online reporting platform has been launched in Ghana by a consortium composed of the Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII) which is the local chapter of Transparency International, SEND-Ghana and the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition to this end.
The online reporting platform called ‘IPaidABribe’ is intended to exposure corruption in public institutions as a way of fighting it. The website provides a forum for citizens to report on the nature, number, pattern, types, location, frequency and values of actual corrupt acts. The data received will then be used to call for improved governance systems and procedures, tighter law enforcement and regulation in order to reduce the scope for corruption in obtaining services from the government and the private sector. Citizens can report on the website if they paid a bribe, resisted a demand for a bribe, or did not have to pay a bribe, because of a new procedure or an honest official who helped them. The citizens reporting the cases of corruption are not required to provide their names or phone numbers.
Is this initiative likely to be effective? While ‘IPaidABribe’ is new to Ghana, it was actually pioneered in India in 2011, and subsequently rolled out in Pakistan and Sri Lanka amongst other countries. It was created by Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan, co-founders of a non-profit organisation in Bangalore called Janaagraha (“people power”) to help citizens who were sick and tired of having to bribe bureaucrats simply to do their respective jobs. By the autumn of 2015, nearly 49,000 reports had been made across 645 Indian towns and cities, which suggests that a degree of momentum had been created.
So what about the concrete results in India? The names of the officials demanding the bribes have been anonymised to avoid spurious claims, and the main aim is to reduce opportunities for corruption which lead to targeted changes in the government system, as opposed to securing prosecutions. One specific change was made in relation to driving tests, where there was a pattern of examiners extracting bribes, and so the Bangalore Transportation Department decided that driving tests should instead taken in a simulator giving an automatic result at the end of the test. In another example, after a huge number of complaints about demands for bribes to register property, the Department of Stamps and Registration introduced changes to the registration process. A variation has been used in Pakistan, where in the Punjab text messages have been used to garner information of civil servants demanding bribes.
Is there any downside to using citizen action to tackle corruption? The key challenge that has been identified across countries is how to keep up the momentum, with web site traffic in India falling dramatically after two years, and a decline in visitors also seen in Pakistan and Columbia, amongst others, with some websites even folding. Cultural factors are also important, and the ‘IPaidABribe’ approach failed to take off in China. There is a natural limit to how far it can be useful in rooting out corruption since it deals with the ‘petty’ level of local government officials, which may only represent a drop in the ocean compared to corruption at the higher levels of government. The approach also relies on the ‘public shame factor’ that once authorities are exposed, they will be compelled to act, and some governments in Africa are likely to be more sensitive to this than others.
So are social media approaches to tackling corruption worth the effort and should they be rolled out across African countries? At the end of the day, initiatives like ‘IPaidABribe’ cannot do any harm as one of the tools in the anti-corruption kit. Even in Ghana, ‘IPaidABribe’ is not the only current anti-corruption initiative, and several other projects are underway, for example with USAID on accountable democratic institutions and systems strengthening, and on providing legal redress to victims of corruption. While there is a limit to what they can achieve, initiatives like ‘IPaidABribe’ can, at the very least serve as a reminder to government institutions that citizens are not prepared to accept corrupt behaviour, do have a voice, and are closely watching them.