By Stella Dawson
Groups of young software programmers spent hours and hours hunched over their laptops writing computer programmes at last week’s International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brasilia.
They were devising ways to scan the rapidly growing trove of public documents available online – government budgets, public procurement contracts, royalty payments from the extractive industries made to countries and corporate financial statements – to discover potential abuse of public finances.
Orsolya Vincze, an Internet activist from Hungary, works on computer programmes that track how funding from the European Union to member states is used. The programmes will send up red flags when odd patterns occur, such as a government channeling a huge number of contracts to one company – information that investigative journalists then probe further.
“We can get public data from government agencies and put it into a huge platform to track where the money goes and who gets it,” she said at an online workshop.
Corruption robs developing and transitional countries of at least $1 trillion to $2 trillion a year, Global Financial Integrity estimates.
And when it comes to fighting graft, citizens are getting active. Indeed, the final declaration from Brasilia included the broad statement:
“Citizens, acting in coordination, can more effectively challenge governments, corporations, financial institutions, sports bodies or international organisations that neglect their duty towards them.”
But what exactly are citizens doing to help beat corruption? They are taking to the Internet.
One anti-corruption tool that has spread rapidly over the past year is the use of websites for citizens to report the bribery, both large and small, that they encounter in their everyday lives.
Many use the Ushahidi platform, which was developed as tool to easily crowd-source information from SMS messages, emails, Twitter and the web.
Nathan Wangusi, developer of a Kenyan online bribery-reporting site called Kuhonga, said the challenge is to make these tools more widely known and then for activists to use the information collected to pressure governments.
And Paul Hilder, vice president of global campaigns at Change.org – a web-based platform set up for people to launch petitions – told the conference: “Technologies help, but it is people who create the change.”
In testimony to this, Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni journalist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the Arab Spring uprisings that relied heavily on technologies to mobilise youth, said the challenge ahead is to ensure governments deliver on their promises of just, open and accountable societies.
“We need an international agreement to hold accountable all those in responsible positions, in governments or in banks,” she said at the conference.
“Citizens need this and this must be guaranteed. We hope there is an agreement to hold all those who commit corrupt acts accountable wherever they are.”
Otherwise, young people will return to the streets, Karman said.