WASHINGTON (TrustLaw) - Citizen website and mobile apps are popping up from Colombia to South Africa encouraging people to report the bribes they pay to get a drivers' license, a birth certificate or even to see an emergency doctor.
But shining a spotlight on corruption is not proving enough to shame bribe-takers into stopping. Community activists say the next step is to use this new source of data as a lobbying tool to get government officials to act.
Two years after Swati Ramanathan and her husband launched ipaidabribe.com in Bangalore - a website for citizens to report petty bribery - their site has become a global model for how crowd-sourcing technology can be used to hold government officials to account.
“We are constantly confronted with petty bribery in our daily lives and we only talked about it in private in our living rooms. When you enter into corrupt transactions with government, even on a relatively small personal scale, you end up compromised and lose your voice, fearful to speak up," Ramanathan said.
"The cathartic impact of sharing a bribery story and learning what others did is empowering people to resist.”
ipaidabribe.com has already scored some notable victories. Bangalore changed the way it issued driving licenses after the site exposed that corruption was rampant in the transport department.
The Indian state of Karnataka also ripped up regulations requiring people to record land transactions at the office where the property is located after the site revealed that the busiest offices were demanding the largest bribes. Now land can be registered anywhere in the state.
Ramanathan’s original idea was simple: uncover the market price of corruption and give people a place to vent their frustration. The project run by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy has morphed into a data collection tool, which builds the evidence for lobbying government, and its success has inspired others.
Every few months from the Baltics to Panama, Singapore to southern Africa a new website pops up with a geolocator map, or mobile phone texting service or a smartphone application urging citizens to report anonymously on the bribes that have been demanded by police, doctors, utility companies or government offices. They post the size of the bribe, the location, who they paid or what happened when they refused to pay. Over a dozen countries have sites today.
Their potential excites governance experts in the wake of Facebook-inspired protests that drove the Arab spring. Bribery is a multi-trillion dollar global business that the United Nations calls a corrosive force, undermining trust in government and weakening economic development. Poor people are twice as likely to pay bribes as the rich.
Jeremy Weinstein, a politics professor at Stanford University, California, and a former national security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, sees the sites as a way to shine a light on illegal behaviour and use shame and social pressure to clean up bureaucracies, in the hope that eventually the pressure for change will focus on the government as a whole.
“No one wants to challenge the system alone,” said Weinstein. “If everyone knows that others are challenging the system, this changes their assessment of the risks of resisting.”
But so far, the impact of these sites has fallen short of their promise.
“There is a bit of a bubble right now around the idea of technology in the hands of citizens, especially around bribery,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity, an advocacy group for transparent and open governments.
The number of reports posted to these sites is small. Several sites launched in Africa are no longer active, and the evidence that they have spurred concrete change so far is scant.
Bribespot launched in April 2011 by six social entrepreneurs who met in Tallinn, Estonia, has had 854 reports from three continents to date. Corruptiontrak run by three Indians studying in Singapore since October 2011 has only 33 reports posted, though 5,000 mobile apps have been downloaded, its developer said.
Even the 20,000 reports posted to Ranganathan’s site is a tiny speck for a country with 300 million urban Indians where bribery is endemic. “We are looking at a market size for 15,000 bribes a day. We are currently tapping only 0.1 percent,” she said.
Courtney Tolmie, a governance programme director at the Research for Development Institute, said two factors are needed to transform online reporting tools into effective agents of change – accessibility and accountability.
Firstly, people need the right incentives to report the bribery. Barriers include fears of retaliation from repressive governments, poor Internet access in some countries, the choice of language used and low literacy levels. Sites that allow reporting in the local languages, are well publicised and accept SMS texting, which is widespread in developing economies, should prove more successful, she said.
Secondly, local activists need to actively lobby government agencies, armed with the data they have collected. “Technology alone is necessary but not sufficient,” Tolmie said.
Artas Bartas, 32, learned that lesson after building Bribespot. At first he wanted to put a human face on the abstract notion of corruption. He has done that.
Click on a yellow dot on the map in Paraguay and a report pops up from a bus passenger who says border control police took their passports and demanded $50 each for an entrance stamp to Argentina. Click on Ukraine and you’ll see someone reports paying a bribe for medical treatment in an emergency room. In Democratic Republic of Congo, another tells how the police stopped them at a checkpoint, dragged them out of their vehicle, and robbed them at gunpoint of their valuables and cash worth $2,500.
But Bartas realised a cool website was not enough. It requires money, a marketing campaigning and partnerships. “You need to cooperate with those who are already fighting corruption. We would be a very useful platform for them,” he said. Now he is fundraising to set up an anti-bribery site for a non-governmental organisation in Russia and is in talks with another group in the Ukraine.
Heller at Global Integrity said he came to similar conclusions after studying 100 projects for a report he co-authored looking at trends in the way technology is being used to promote transparency in different parts of the world.
“It is not the inspired bureaucrat staring at dots on a map who decides to change. It is the key intermediaries, the activists, making the case for why this must change,” he said. “There is a lust for technology tools to change the world, turn countries on their hands. But the truth is there are no silver bullets. It takes hard work and incremental steps.”