Syndicate content

Add new comment

Cracking the Entrenched System of Corruption

Fumiko Nagano's picture

Last month, I had the pleasure to meet again with Shaazka Beyerle, Senior Advisor at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, during her visit to Washington. Sina and I first met Beyerle in Doha and were impressed by her research on civic campaigns to fight corruption; I had the chance to speak with her by phone in December and was happy to continue our conversation in person in February. Having examined a multitude of non-violent grassroots campaigns against corruption around the world for her own research (for those interested, here is the link to her research description), Beyerle shared with me not only numerous interesting cases for CommGAP to look into in our research, but also her observations about the factors that contribute to the success of civic efforts to fight corruption.

Among Beyerle’s ideas, I found the following points particularly important for understanding how better to design anti-corruption efforts that engage ordinary citizens.

--Ideas must originate from the people: For the fight against corruption to be relevant and owned by the people, the idea and will to fight corruption have to be grassroots, coming from the people themselves.

--Link to real issues: Related to Point 1 is that corruption is a crosscutting issue that has an impact on all sectors, such as poverty, health, education, human rights, and environment. Thus, civic action campaigns to fight corruption often address one or more of these linkages, particularly because simply mentioning the word “corruption” might not mean anything concrete to the people. Campaigns that are successful go a step further and translate these general concerns into real, everyday issues that are troubling ordinary citizens, for example, a poor person being denied the opportunity to see a doctor at a public clinic unless a bribe is paid, or illegal development that is destroying communities and public spaces, such as parks and forests. According to Beyerle, corruption “isn’t linked to these wider topics solely to involve ordinary people. It’s also linked to them because in reality they cannot be separated and because corruption usually cannot be addressed in a vacuum; otherwise it remains simply an abstract notion.”

--Build alliances and coalitions: successful campaigns are able to generate support of citizens old and young from a wide range of groups in society.

--Actions matter: There seems to be a fair amount of skepticism about the impact of individual actions to fight corruption (as the comments to the zero rupee post demonstrate), but actions, even on smaller scales, count, especially when many people are involved. In explaining this concept to me, Beyerle recounted the experience of Turkey’s 1997 “One Minute of Darkness for Constant Light” campaign. This campaign lasted six weeks and at its peak mobilized around 30 million ordinary citizens in a coordinated effort to battle systemic corruption. The effort these citizens took part in was simple: to turn off their lights at a pre-agreed upon time for one minute. With each passing night, people felt empowered and added embellishments, such as blowing whistles and banging pots and pans. These simple but symbolic acts by the people helped disrupt the government’s regular system of conducting affairs—an entrenched system which the government believed enjoyed full public support…until people voiced their dissatisfaction with it. When people took part in the campaign, this act, however small, created cracks in the system that the ruling party could no longer ignore, rendering the continuation of the old ways of doing things unsustainable.

--Be creative: Efforts to mobilize ordinary citizens could benefit from creative ideas that are suitable to the local context. In addition to Turkey’s “One Minute of Darkness for Constant Light” campaign which was unique and inventive, Beyerle talked about the role that simple, low-risk tactics could play in raising public awareness, visibility and support for anti-corruption campaigns. One example that is particularly creative is the case we have already seen: the textbook count initiative in the Philippines. In this case, boy and girl scouts were identified as just the right partners to engage in an initiative designed to address the discrepancy between the number of textbooks sent and the number of books actually received by schools. Boy scouts and girl scouts had an interest at stake to make sure that schools received the correct number of textbooks. Mobilized, they counted the textbooks and reported their findings using a text message back to the Ministry of Education. It became an effective mechanism to reduce the percentage of ghost delivery of textbooks.

Given these observations and particularly the importance of ownership, what can the donor community do to support anti-corruption efforts? How can these efforts be funded without being damaging or not of value? Beyerle suggests that consultations with civil society—including at the grassroots-are the key to understanding local realities and figuring out what would actually be helpful or complementary on the ground. Just as important is to identify with which NGOs and CSOs to consult: one would need credible civic organizations that are known to and trusted by the public, in tune with the concerns of ordinary citizens, and that do know how to conduct outreach efforts to spread information. Good ideas can come from ordinary citizens and such initiatives always need local partners to act as a springboard, so donors and international NGOs should share the relevant know-how with them and give them small grants to put the ideas into action, as in the example of the International Budget Partnership, which provides training, technical assistance and financial support for civic initiatives to make budgets more transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of the people. A compelling example of such synergy is the social audit campaign organized by Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) in Kenya.

In addition, knowing the political context is clearly important, not only because it should be the first step to designing any reform effort, but also for the purpose of not bringing harm to the local partners through implementation of an idea that is not suitable for that society. Beyerle says, “traditionally, fighting poverty and corruption has been approached from the top-down. Civic campaigns are bottom-up: the grievances, issues, and demands relate to the lives of people. The donor community can also play an important role in advocating for reforms that the civic realm needs to fight corruption, for example, the Freedom of Information Acts.”

Photo Credit: Flickr user shaire productions