Last week, the UK’s Overseas Development Institute hosted an event examining the role that citizens can play in challenging corruption. Pierre Landell-Mills – from the Partnership for Transparency’s Fund (PTF) and author of the new book Citizens against Corruption – was adamant that governance reform can only come from within a country and that external attempts to bring about reform have largely failed. As evidence, he offered the experiences of some of PTF’s partners working in 53 countries across the globe. According to PTF, the use of small grants (approximately $25,000) has enabled civil society organisations to drive savings of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. In the Philippines, for example, students equipped with mobile phones documented the misuse of official vehicles by public servants, while a second project in the country saw pupils take an active role in monitoring the production and distribution of school textbooks. PTF believe that there is a huge reservoir of potential citizen activists simply waiting for the right opportunity to come along. While corruption may well be a fact of life for many people around the world, this is not to say that they are happy with the situation. So what can be done? Well, according to Landell-Mills, the successful ingredients of a citizen monitoring project are: constructive engagement with government; local capacity building and awareness raising; working with champions within the system; realistic objectives; and persistence.
DFID’s Mark Robinson echoed Landell-Mills’ calls for constructive engagement with government, but questioned whether reform could only come from the bottom up. He argued that reforms led by government can be successful and that they shouldn’t automatically be dismissed as cynical and ineffective. He also highlighted the need for rigorous research and evidence to make a stronger case for citizen action against corruption. How can donors be sure that the savings quoted by CSOs are accurate? In belt-tightening times, evidence-led, cost-effective interventions are critical.
Finally, there was a brief discussion of the role that new technology can play. While there was general agreement that tech is not a panacea capable of clearing up corruption overnight, it was agreed that it can be a very useful tool in collecting data and documenting evidence. It would certainly be great to see some rigorous evidence collected on the impact that tech + citizens can have in tackling corruption.