Sierra Leone is launching a major citizen action campaign against petty corruption in its public sector. The country’s new Pay No Bribe process hinges on an online reporting platform which makes it easier for people who are asked for a bribe by a public servant, to report it to the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
Pay No Bribe, is part of the President’s Recovery Priorities – Sierra Leone’s recovery process which is intended to address the socio-economic effects of Ebola and the iron ore price slump. The Recovery Priorities take the form of a coordinated series of development initiatives across education, energy, health, social protection, water, the private sector and governance, to be delivered by June 2017.
Governance has the over-arching objective of improving delivery in all the priority areas and the inclusion of Pay No Bribe recognises the extent to which corruption has rooted itself within Sierra Leone’s public sector. Figures from Transparency International’s 2015 global corruption index reveal the scale of the problem – 48% respondents reported that they or members of their households had paid a bribe to access medical and health services, 62% to education and 57% to utilities.
Reducing corruption in these areas would represent a significant and direct benefit for a substantial number of Sierra Leone’s people – more money in their pockets, improved access to services that are vital in the literal sense of the word, and the satisfaction of knowing they can be part of the solution to the problem.
Less immediately obvious, are the benefits that reducing corruption would have on culture and society in Sierra Leone. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General has said that: “Corruption is a key element in economic under performance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development.” The truth of this observation is profoundly evident in Sierra Leone’s stunted development. Research also demonstrates that encounters with corruption impair citizens’ confidence in government and public services, and promote dishonest practices in people’s interactions with government. In effect, corruption begets corruption.
But despite the obvious benefits, Sierra Leoneans will still have to buy into Pay No Bribe for it to work. This won’t be quite so straightforward. Corruption in Sierra Leone is a cunning, complex process. It most affects society’s poorest and this is the very group who will be wary about reporting and put off by the technology involved. A freephone number, the assurance of anonymity and a system or reporting for those with no access to a phone or internet will go some way towards addressing these concerns. Nevertheless, building the confidence to participate will be an ongoing process of reassurance.
For the affluent, the petty sums that oil creaky public service processes are deemed money well spent or are small enough to be easily overlooked. On that subject, Ady Macauley, the Commissioner of the ACC is unequivocal saying that petty corruption means that “children do not get the education they need to build a better future for themselves and our country; and the sick die because they are denied life-saving treatment or vital medication … It destabilises our society and contributes towards creating the conditions for conflict.”
Cultural nuances are another, often overlooked barrier to buy-in. As Isha Johansen, President of the Sierra Leonean Football Association, says of her own campaign for good governance in Sierra Leone’s football industry, “definitions of corruption vary depending on location. Individuals in countries where there aren’t rigid structures in place are not necessarily aware that they’re breaking the rules.”
Take for example, the issue of gifts. In Sierra Leone, like much of Africa, acts of giving are woven into social, business and cultural life. Formal meetings with traditional leaders are preceded with the giving of a cash gift, however nominal and ‘transport’ money is appropriate if they attend meetings outside their community, it. The giving works both ways. At a recent conference on community engagement, one chief explained that he was expected to give his people food, when he called community consultation meetings, “otherwise he would be considered a greedy chief, and his people would refuse to attend.” Noticeably, the language of corruption reflects a bastardised version of these traditions, with the public sector official as a quasi-authority figure, asking for transport, water or ‘chop’ money.
Sierra Leone is not unusual. Davide Torsello, of the University of Bergamo has written about the custom of exchanging favours in Italy and Turkey, and informal economic transactions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Tanzania that facilitate corruption without breaking social norms.
The very nature of corruption is to hide, adapt, minimise, trivialise or normalise its deviance. The Pay No Bribe system is an important step, but to successfully call time on petty corruption, it it will need to be matched by clear results and an ongoing process of engagement with the public to build awareness of corruption, its causes, its guises and its truly destructive effect on our country’s development.