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.
CommGAP believes that social norms transformation is key to fighting petty corruption; we believe that one of the biggest impediments to anti-corruption efforts from the perspective of ordinary citizens is when corruption and bribery become so institutionalized in society that people view corruption as the fixed and incontestable norm. To break down such a system, the public’s ignorance of their rights, cynicism, fear of reprisal and mentality of submission to the status quo must first be defeated. Perhaps most importantly, the efficacy challenge needs to be addressed—people need to believe that they can actually do something about corruption so that they can act on that belief.
Imagine that you are an old lady from a poor household in a town in the outskirts of Chennai city, India. All you have wanted desperately for the last year and a half is to get a title in your name for the land you own, called patta. You need this land title to serve as a collateral for a bank loan you have been hoping to borrow to finance your granddaughter’s college education. But there has been a problem: the Revenue Department official responsible for giving out the patta has been asking you to pay a little fee for this service. That’s right, a bribe. But you are poor (you are officially assessed to be below the poverty line) and you do not have the money he wants. And the most absurd part about the scenario you find yourself in is that this is a public service that should be rendered to you free of charge in the first place. What would you do? You might conclude, as you have done for the last 1-1/2 years, that there isn’t much you can do…but wait, you just heard about a local NGO by the name of 5th Pillar and it just happened to give you a powerful ally: a zero rupee note.
On Monday this week, I went to a presentation by Michael Buehler at the Center for Strategic &International Studies in Washington, DC. The title of his talk, “Of Geckos and Crocodiles: Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Efforts,” piqued my curiosity as I had blogged about Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission earlier this year. Buehler began by giving a comprehensive overview of Indonesia’s corruption eradication measures since 1998 to date, outlining the passage of corruption-related laws and regulations, establishment of independent anti-corruption bodies, and development of anti-corruption programs. He then gave an analysis of the anti-corruption bodies, programs and their weaknesses, chronicled the work of the country’s anti-corruption commission (called the Corruption Eradication Commission, or “KPK” for short in Indonesian), and described the achievements and challenges facing anti-corruption efforts in Indonesia.
If we had to name one reason why petty corruption is so difficult to tackle, it has to be that it makes sense for people to engage in it than not. Unlike measures such as smoking bans, seatbelt laws, and drinking and driving laws where there is a clear individual benefit to those who do the “right thing,” corruption bans are hard to enforce because there aren’t easily discernible individual benefits to those who obey them. Rather, in countries where corruption is systemic, people who do what is right and follow whatever anti-corruption law might be in place will find themselves losing out to those who don’t.
In fact, with corruption, individual opinion doesn’t seem to matter much in one’s decision whether to engage in it. In theory, most people believe that corruption is wrong. But in practice, the incentive that motivates an individual’s behavior in a corruption-prone situation is their perception of what everyone else would do in a similar situation. Would your pregnant colleague pay a bribe so that she could jump the queue and get an H1N1 vaccination when the vaccines are in limited supply? Would your neighbor, an entrepreneur, slip a few notes to a civil servant under the table to expedite the process of obtaining a business license? If the answer to each of these questions is a “yes,” then why should you bother going against the system alone? Why should you do the right thing and find yourself at a disadvantage to everyone else who will do what it takes to obtain what they need given the environment and culture in which they live?
Yesterday, CommGAP and UNODC co-hosted a side event during the Third Conference of the State Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption, taking place this week in Doha, Qatar. Entitled, “Media Relations and Good Practices in Awareness-Raising Campaigns,” the event consisted of two sessions, focusing on the importance of media relations for an anti-corruption agency to get its message across to the public and generate public support, and of awareness raising campaigns to engage the public in the fight against corruption.
Last year, CommGAP and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) jointly organized a learning event on the role of communication in anti-corruption efforts, bringing together anti-corruption agencies, senior practitioners, and academics to talk about communication-related challenges faced in anti-corruption work. There, we heard several issues that troubled the anti-corruption agency officials, but one in particular stood out: agency officials were deeply conflicted with the task of working effectively with the media and journalists. While in theory, they understood the importance of working with the media for their work to be successful, in practice, they did not quite know how to establish a good working relationship with the media.
We at CommGAP are interested in learning how to change social norms as key to fighting petty corruption. When looking at the issue of norms as they relate to corrupt practices, as with most issues, there are two sides to the petty corruption equation: citizens who pay bribes and public servants who accept them. A number of posts on this blog have dealt with the importance of getting citizens to view bribery as wrong. So what about public servants? How do you get them to stop demanding and accepting bribes from citizens?
A couple of interesting solutions to this question were found in Nepal and Kazakhstan, as reported by the BBC earlier this year. In Nepal, in order to fight petty corruption at its main international airport, the government planned to put in place an unusual measure: making airport employees wear pants without pockets to prevent them from taking bribes from travelers. In Kazakhstan, one of the government’s anti-corruption initiatives included making civil servants wear badges saying “I am against corruption,” in the hopes that those wearing such badges would think twice before demanding bribes.
According to The Financial Times, the U.S. government’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board plans to launch in October what the FT calls “the most complex government website in history." The Recovery Board, an independent body headed by Chairman Earl Devaney, is tasked to oversee the outflow of the US $787 billion stimulus package to jumpstart the ailing economy, and the state-of the-art website is intended to engage citizens in tracking the use of taxpayer money.
What caught my attention is the premise behind this initiative—that citizens know best what is happening in their own communities. In an effort to rein in waste, fraud, and abuse of stimulus funds, the Recovery Board is putting into practice the principles of accountability and transparency through partnership with citizens. The Board understands that to carry out its mandate successfully, it needs to equip citizens with information so that they can help the Board do its job. As Mr. Devaney explains, “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors-general].”
On Facebook, I have noticed an interesting trend: some of my friends who are normally introverted and shy in person are a lot more vocal and seem to have fewer qualms about voicing their opinions on the site. They post status updates sharing their thoughts on issues, comment on others’ posts, and provide links to websites, articles, photos and videos about topics that they deem important, even creating interest-specific groups to attract those who are keen to participate in online discussions on key causes. Part of this phenomenon might be psychological. Maybe we feel a certain degree of safety on social networking sites because they give us the option not to have to engage in physical, face-to-face interactions with those who might disagree. On these interfaces, there is no need to worry about potentially negative consequences arising from differences in opinion, such as ridicule, humiliation, confrontation, and isolation. If social networking sites can embolden even the shiest of us to voice our true opinions, could they be the answer to breaking the spiral of silence on contested issues?