Pierre Landell Mills, a long-time and tireless advocate for putting governance at the center of development and a founder and board member of The Partnership for Transparency, contributes the following guest post:
Everyone professes to hate corruption, but until recently few citizens believed they could stop it. Too often citizens accepted corruption, assuming it was a permanent societal disability to be borne with resignation. But people are increasingly intolerant of being squeezed for bribes and are ever more incensed at predatory officials growing fat on extortion and crooked deals. They want to do something about it.
And they are. From the Philippines to Azerbaijan to Latvia to India to Mongolia and everywhere in between groups of courageous and dedicated citizens are taking direct action to root out corruption. Citizens Against Corruption: Report from the Front Line recounts the heroic struggle of local civil society organizations in more than 50 countries across four continents supported by The Partnership for Transparency Fund. Among the examples the book details —
* The Philippines. The Concerned Citizens of Abra, a group campaigning against corruption in a landlocked province in the north of the Philippines, decided in 2009 to monitor the construction of a highway being built to give better access to their district, suspecting that the contractor would as usual make fat profits by skimping on materials. They knew that with sub-standard work the road would not last. Abra has remained poor partly because it has very poor roads and this was a road that was much needed. Concerned Citizens’ volunteers argued with the workers on the job. They counted only 26 bags of cement being used with the aggregates, while the workers insisted there were 36. The volunteers suggested counting the fresh cement bags strewn around. The contractor would not hear of it. The volunteers, convinced that the quantity of concrete being used was insufficient, sought the shade of a nearby tree and waited to see where the concrete mix was poured. This done, they left. They then complained about the scam to the province’s Department of Public Works and Highways. The Director was eventually persuaded to send a team to investigate. The inspectors found weak concrete, poor sub-base preparation, and the use of oversized aggregates resulting in longitudinal cracks in the roadbed. The contractor was forced to rebuild the flawed road at his own expense and the project engineer, who was part of the scam, resigned “because of shame.” This was a modest achievement in a remote place, but if actions like this are taken countless times across a country, it starts to make a real difference. Citizens Against Corruption documents dozens of similar cases where citizens have successfully called corrupt officials to account.
* Azerbaijan. It is not only local corruption that is being tackled. Citizens also have ‘grand larceny’ in their sights, an altogether more dangerous task since those targeted are often both powerful and ruthless. But it is happening. In Azerbaijan in 2008, some brave researchers working at the Center for Economic and Social Development had been tracking the use of oil revenues deposited in the State Oil Fund. The Fund is chaired by the autocratic State President, Ilham Aliyev, someone not used to being challenged. The Center audited a project to build houses for those displaced in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and identified US$50 million as unaccounted for. Such was the publicity given to this investigation that the missing funds were quickly ‘found’ and returned to state coffers.
* Latvia. In Latvia, a citizen group monitored the construction of their new National Library, saving millions of dollars that would otherwise have gone to corrupt construction companies.
* India. Transparency India has been tracking the award of multi-million dollar construction contracts by public power companies.
* Mongolia. In Mongolia, a local group stopped mining companies ignoring environmental regulations aimed at preventing the pollution of agricultural land.
When we put together all the stories we have of citizens making a real difference, often with very few resources, it becomes evident that we have a true revolution in the making. Individual initiatives may be impressive, but they are inevitably limited in time and space. But if countless such initiatives across the globe were aggregated, then we would soon reach the ‘tipping point’ where the relationship of citizens to their governments starts to shift from deliberate opacity and lack of accountability to one where public officials will not dare to abuse their power or steal the common wealth. Modern information technology and an ever growing proportion of citizens aware of what is happening and no longer willing to tolerate misuse of power will speed this process forward.
Fighting corruption is a permanent existential struggle. It can only be won by those ordinary citizens directly concerned mobilizing to monitor, expose and campaign against dishonest officials. The more support these civil society organizations receive the more effective they can be. This support needs to be generous and sustained. Small grants can yield massive benefits with rates of return many multiples of what ordinary donor aid achieves. It is ironic that over the years official donor aid has given so little support to civil society organizations which are promoting governance reform but instead have poured millions into government sponsored reform programs that were bound to fail because ruling elites have no interest in their success.