Ebola, flying delivery drones and Africa’s economic woes share a common denominator. What is it, and what is one web site doing to fight it?
Several months ago, Geektime reported about the huge potential for drone delivery in Africa because the continent’s transportation infrastructure is so poor.
Recently, the Huffington Post highlighted a related problem in Kenya: Ordinary citizens must regularly pay traffic bribes just to go about their daily lives. Police regularly stop vehicles and let them go once a bribe is paid.
Obviously this bodes ill for the country’s business sector, not to mention the startup scene.
Investment risk consultant Daniel Wagner has written that unless Kenya tackles corruption, the country “will continue to muddle along as it has for decades, failing to address the corruption issue in any meaningful way, and squandering the opportunity to become a genuine regional economic powerhouse.”
A container of $140,000 worth of medical equipment from the United States had been delayed at the port in Freetown, Sierra Leone, pending a “cash donation” to the right government official. The container held protective gowns, gloves, stretchers, and mattresses.
But corruption is notoriously hard to tackle with technology or from the outside in. There needs to be an enabling political and social climate. That’s where the website ipaidabribe.com comes in. Founded by Swati Ramanathan and her husband Ramesh, the site, founded in 2010, is an anonymous forum where people can post about bribes they paid and didn’t pay.
About 80 percent of reports to the site involve officials asking for money to provide services they are supposed to give free of charge: birth or death certificates, passport, driving license, traffic offenses.
The site covers 14 countries, including Kenya and Zimbabwe in Africa, Greece and Ukraine in Europe, India, Pakistan and Syria. Although the last-mentioned country has bigger problems on its hands right now than widespread corruption. The web site claims to have 4.5 milliion visitors worldwide.
Here is a typical report from a citizen in Kenya: “Took a thief to the police station, cop asks for kilo tatu ya “nyama” (3000/=) to process the paperwork. Guy was released 2 days later and threatened the life of me and my mother.”
But does it work? One anti-corruption expert, Ann Bernstein, says that such grassroots campaigns work better in countries that are already democratic. That is because they already have institutions in place with oversight and accountability, however flawed.
For instance, in India, the transport department of Karnataka was singled out on ipaidabribe.com as particularly corrupt. But then the department’s commissioner read the site and asked the staff of “I paid a bribe” to present their findings to his staff.
“I wanted to use the website to cleanse my department…. If I try to do things on my own here I may run into heavy weather … but the evidence on this website gives me some internal support to bring about reforms.”
In China, on the other hand, “I made a bribe” was quickly shut down by the government. China’s government sometimes makes a show of cracking down on corruption, even going so far as to execute corrupt officials. But without democratic checks and balances, these efforts are ineffective, says Bernstein.