By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY
An Indian website tackling corruption has been so successful it has inspired a wave of followers in China.
The I Paid a Bribe website – motto: “Uncover the Market Price of Corruption” – was set up by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (http://www.janaagraha.org), a non-profit organisation based in Bangalore, India.
Janaagraha is dedicated to working with government and citizens to “improve the quality of life in Indian cities and towns,” according to its website.
Janaagraha’s initiatives strive “to make government departments transparent and accountable,” and the ipaidabribe programme (http://www.ipaidabribe.com) fits in with that goal. It seeks to harness the collective voices of the citizens to report and quantify incidents of corruption. The website will help to paint a picture of the level of corruption in cities and help the NGO in its fight to improve government oversight systems and procedures and to improve law enforcement and adherence to regulations.
The website tackles the “pernicious effect of corruption on destroying city life and disempowering citizens,” according to Raghunandan Thoniparambil, the site’s programme coordinator. “The original idea was that the website could become a simple means of tracking the market price of corruption – a kind of price prediction mechanism.”
He said the original idea was tongue in cheek and propelled by cynicism – but the site’s creators soon realized that “such an effort was indeed a very powerful one.”
The website displays reports and analytics on bribe patterns by city and by transaction amounts, frequency and averages.
The long-term goal is to reduce corruption faced by Indians when they use government services. The website asks users to log both recent and past incidences of bribery. It says: “Please tell us if you 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 you. We do not ask for your name or phone details, so feel free to report on the formats provided.”
Neither accusers nor accused are identified by name – only the incidents are logged. The website is funded by a grant of US $3 million and the NGO is planning to launch a mobile phone application as well.
The website doesn’t pursue individuals because it has found this approach is a distraction to getting systemic improvements by government.
“By not allowing names to be published, we have eliminated any incentive for any individual to make a false or malicious complaint,” said Thoniparambil. “Since nobody will gain anything by reporting a false complaint on our site because we do not act on complaints, we expect that the stories on the site are true.”
The site has been so popular it has spawned imitators in China and elsewhere. Thoniparambil said Janaagraha has been approached by civil society organisations in 13 countries about collaborating.
After a story was published in the Beijing News about I Paid a Bribe, a flurry of ‘tips’ and accusations flooded the Internet in China, and people set up similar websites to gather information on bribery and corruption in their country. One web developer called “Peater Q” set up a Chinese version of I Paid a Bribe, calling it wohuilule.com. Another two websites that popped up included “I Bribe…” (http://www.wxhwz.com) and http://www.tmzg.org. Some of the dozens of websites have been taken down, but others have received official support and encouragement.
“Peater Q” says he is a young Communist Party member and has received government permission for his site. He says the name of his site, wohuilule.com, is a Chinese translation of “I paid a bribe.”
These are still early days as these websites work out how to balance the need to ferret out corruption and bribery and the need to avoid gossip, rumour and slander. It is clear the damage done to a country when corruption and bribery get out of control is significant.
The United Nations’ Global Compact on anti-corruption calls it “one of the world’s greatest challenges.”
A report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Chinese corruption (http://carnegieendowment.org/2007/10/09/corruption-threatens-china-s-future/g4) found it threatens the country’s future by increasing socioeconomic inequality and social unrest. The report found 10 percent of government spending, contracts, and transactions goes to kickbacks and bribes, or is simply stolen. It also found the indirect costs of corruption to include efficiency losses, waste and damage to the environment, public health, education, credibility and morale.
“Corruption both undermines social stability (sparking tens of thousands of protests each year), and contributes to China’s environmental degradation, deterioration of social services, and the rising cost of health care, housing, and education,” the report said.
I Paid a Bribe is being used to build up an intelligent picture of corruption and bribery in India so that real change can be made.
“Citizens’ reports on the nature, number, pattern, types, locations and frequency of actual corrupt acts and values of bribes will add up to a valuable knowledge bank that will contribute to a reduction in bribe payments,” Thoniparambil said.
Not only does the website raise awareness about the problem and its dynamics, it maps out the path corruption takes through a public service. This, the website hopes, will enable better “more consistent standards of law enforcement and better vigilance and regulation.”
“We believe that every citizen who reports a story on our website about paying a bribe is angry enough to begin to resist it,” explains Thoniparambil.
“Except for using the data that we receive for further analysis, we will not take the complaints and stories forward. We do not intend to invoke the courts.”
But these websites need to be run with caution and care and they do have their critics.
“If you wanted to tarnish the reputation of the government or a department within it, or settle a vendetta, you could just get all of your friends to post claims against them,” Raymond Fisman, a professor at Columbia Business School who has studied corruption, told the BBC.
“There is no way of credibly aggregating the information to assess the magnitude of the problem,” he added.
Thoniparambil, however, remains positive that corruption and bribery are problems that can be tackled.
“I believe that corruption has grown this big only because as citizens, we have tolerated it,” he explains. “If we actively oppose it and there are enough of us, the government has to buckle down and tackle the problem effectively.
“Corruption may be rampant in India, but it is not endemic,” believes Thoniparambil. “Blaming it on our value systems is a poor alibi with no substance in it. I do not believe that Indians are inherently corrupt; our value systems are as good or as bad as anybody else’s. Corruption is not a social trend that arises out of an erosion of value systems; it is born out of systems failure. Corruption flourishes because we have poorly designed governance systems in the country.”
Thoniparambil sites a number of Indian successes to back up his optimism: competition in telephone service providers has reduced corruption; booking of railway tickets online has taken the power away from corrupt ticket sellers; and government departments have been forced to state how long services will take to complete.
Thoniparambil believes it is about changing the relationship between citizens and the public services they receive.
“We would like citizens to begin to realize that public services are our entitlements,” he says. “These are not favours dispensed from above. They ought not to be pessimistic about corruption. Countries have cleaned up very dramatically and the processes by which it has been done have been documented.
“Reduction of bribery in India will improve access to government services, particularly for the poor, reduce the cost of delivery of such services, speed up business and recourse to legal remedies. It will improve the quality of infrastructure and will be deeply empowering for Indian citizens.”
“It is only the collective energy of people that can turn the tables on the corrupt.”
1) United Nations Global Compact: A website packed with resources on how to tackle corruption and how to network globally with others to tackle corruption. Website: http://www.unglobalcompact.org/Issues/transparency_anticorruption/
2) India Against Corruption: India Against Corruption movement is an expression of collective anger of people of India against corruption. This is their campaign website. Website: http://www.indiaagainstcorruption.org/
Read more about the perils of bribery here: The Strange Saga of “South-South News”
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