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Asia-Pacific Analysis: Harnessing science vs corruption
  • Asia-Pacific Analysis: Harnessing science vs corruption

Copyright: Espen Rasmussen / Panos

Speed read

  • The internet has ushered in an era of transparency with various social media sites

  • Citizen media platforms using online networks are emerging as powerful watchdogs

  • The World Bank estimates a trillion dollars in bribes change hands every year

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Most countries in South-East Asia are still beset by corruption that hampers development. Can science, more specifically, social media and information and communication technology (ICT), be harnessed to fight corruption in the region?

The 2013 and 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by the Transparency International (TI), indicates that despite government protestations, most countries in the region are still not doing enough to fight corruption. [1]

The index ranks countries on a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of corruption in the public sector — a score of 1 means ‘most corrupt’ while 100 means ‘very clean’.

The cleanest countries in South-East Asia, according to the TI index, are Singapore, which ranked fifth globally with a score of 86, and Brunei, which placed 38 with a score of 60. Both are also the most economically progressive in the region. The rest of their neighbouring countries are still struggling with corruption:

Corruption Perceptions Index of South-East Asian Countries, 2013

Global Rank

Country

Score

5

Singapore

86

38

Brunei

60

53

Malaysia

50

94

Philippines

36

102

Thailand

35

114

Indonesia

32

116

Vietnam

31

119 

East Timor

30

140

Laos

26

157

Myanmar

21

160

Cambodia

20

Power of social media

Back to the question, can social media and ICT be mobilised more aggressively in the fight against corruption? Yes, it can and should. There are already many examples of this.

Says Frank Vogl, TI co-founder: “(T)hrough the combined forces of Twitter, Facebook, WikiLeaks, and solid investigative journalism, the general public is learning about the vast sums stolen by corrupt officials, from China and Russia, through the Middle East, to Africa and Latin America.” [2]

Indeed, the internet, he says has “opened the door to an era of transparency, strengthening civil society activists and public prosecutors alike, as they…make it ever harder for the bribe-payers and the bribe-takers to hide”. [2]

In the past, the traditional media — newspapers, radio and television — took the lead in exposing government corruption since printing with movable metal types was invented. They were referred to as the “fourth estate” by Edmund Burke during the beginnings of British democracy in the 1700s and performed the role of watchdog in government.

These watchdogs, however, always battled constraints in the form of government censorship in authoritarian countries.

The ‘fifth estate’

As traditional mass media become more like big business than watchdogs, Technology for Transparency Network suggests that we start thinking about a “fifth estate” — networked citizen media platforms that rely on volunteer contributions of citizens. They can perform the role of watchdog and enhance investigative journalism provided by professional journalists.

These platforms are made possible by online networks. They engage internet and mobile phone users to demand transparency and make corrupt behaviour risky for public and private officials.

Some examples are websites publishing data on government procurement or budgets. They monitor government priorities — where the people’s money is spent and how — and they also expose irregularities and create pressure for action. Anti-corruption fighters use Twitter to expose corrupt officials and cell phone cameras can record specific acts of bribe-taking by government employees.

In 2014, Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters communicated through FireChat, a smartphone app that allows users to send text messages “off-the-grid” using a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link instead of a standard Internet connection. [3] Crowd-sourcing is now being done to gather information from the public using Internet and mobile technology and to come up with collaborative content. Anyone can contribute. A variant called crowd-mapping superimposes the information on a map.

There is also blogging where individuals maintain online presence with regular factual reports and opinions, descriptions of events, or other materials such as graphics or video, and allow for exchange of ideas between bloggers and readers.

Two bloggers for the World Bank, Carolyn Anstey and Leonard McCarthy, share some examples of how technology has proved effective in the drive against corruption.

They cited Indonesia’s Urban Poverty Program which has harnessed the Internet and mobile phone to improve project monitoring while the Philippines has started an online public tip-off program which netted dozens of tax evaders and smugglers within its first six months of operation.

Using the phone or Internet, the World Bank’s Integrity Vice President, known as INT, investigates cases of fraud and corruption in its financed projects. Satellite photography enabled INT investigators to detect that a building for a WB-financed project in a conflict zone remained unfinished, although its government claimed to the contrary. [4]

Inspired by the boom in apps, the World Bank has come up with its own Integrity App, aimed at giving citizens instant access to information about its financed projects and a means of instantly reporting fraud and corruption. Future versions of the app will inform users where the projects are located and use tags to give specific information on how much money has been spent and how close a project is to completion.

More needs to be done

There is no question that we now have enough technologies to be able to monitor corruption in government, business and society.

But we need to take corruption and its insidious impact on development seriously. The World Bank estimates that a trillion dollars in bribes change hands every year while the World Economic Forum estimates that corruption skims five per cent off the planet’s GDP, according to Michael Todd, Social Science Space editor. [5]

A study commissioned by Transparency International reports that “TI’s 2011-2015 strategy recognises that much more needs to be done to move beyond established policy circles and mobilise a broader range of citizens to take action against corruption”. [6]

“Social media tools will need to be harnessed by TI to reach and maintain meaningful engagement with these groups,” the study adds.

We might add, it is time for the UN to step in and launch a programme for monitoring corruption among its member nations, including how disaster aid is being spent. International aid foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can take the lead in studying how corruption can be licked.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

References

[1] Transparency International The Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 (Southeast Asia) (accessed 24 March 2015)
[2] Frank Vogl Technology can help fight corruption (Financial Times, 11 September 2012)
[3] Giovanni Ortolani and Paola Di Bella Hacking authoritarian regimes with simple technology (SciDev.Net, 19 March 2015)
[4] Carolyn Anstey and Leonard McCarthy, Technology is Helping the Fight Against Corruption, posted 12 Sept. 2011, updated 2 August 2012
[5] Michael Todd Tracking the provenance of corruption (Social Science Space, 15 October 2014)
[6] Dana Bekri and others Harnessing social media tools to fight corruption (Report prepared for Transparency International, May 2011)
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