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Opinions of Sunday, 13 February 2011

Columnist: Oteng, Maxwell

Ideas that May Just Help US Fight Corruption in Ghana

By Maxwell Oteng

The other day President Mills showed positive anger about Anas Ameyaw’s video-evidenced revelations of the tangled web of corruption at Tema port. No one can blame the president for showing righteous indignation at such cancerous culture that not only corrodes the national conscience, but also sucks the blood out of our economic vitality. But if it’s going to take revelations by an investigative journalist to prick the conscience and sensibilities of the president about corruption in Ghana, then I’m afraid the president lives in a cocooned fantasyland that is far removed from the reality that is Ghana. In fact corrupt practices are isolated incidences I n Ghana- corruption has been institutionalized and has become a deep-seated culture onto itself in almost every endeavor in the country. Like all institutionalized practices and cultural behaviors, corruption in Ghana cannot be dealt with by publicly dressing down the few apples that have been exposed by an investigative journalist. It will take more than the preachifying of the beatitudes to appeal to the moral consciences of economically-rational-but-immoral people to stop their corrupt ways. That won’t work! It doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked anywhere in the world! After all aren’t Ghanaians one of the most religious peoples in the world who spend countless hours in churches, mosques and shrines listening the gospel of moral sentiments? Yet despite all the ream of moral words that are fed into the ears of Ghanaians daily, corruption is rampant, its pervasiveness not limited to the Tema port or the power corridors of Accra, but also to the nooks and crannies of the country.

Human beings are moral beings, but we are also economic beings, constantly making rational economic calculations even unbeknownst to us. It is easy to appeal to our moral conscience to do the right thing when the right economic incentives are in place. However, when economic incentives are wrongly structured and our cost-benefit analysis shows that the marginal benefits of our selfish actions are greater than their marginal costs, the urges of our economic being is more likely to overwhelm that of our moral being. This suggests that to effectively deal with corruption in our country, we have to redesign our incentives structure to reward those who do the right thing and punish those who don’t. Unfortunately we seem to think that ridding the country of corruption is the job of the president alone. It is not, and should not be! No one person can pull the horns of corruption all by themselves, not even the president. It’ll take a collective effort and sustained national campaign to root out or de-institutionalize corruption in Ghana.

We know that those in positions of authority engage in corrupt practices because they can, and they know how to massage the system to get away with their malfeasances. But it takes two to tango. So the natural question is why do most of the citizenry aid and abet in these practices? In most cases, the reason why ordinary people engage in corruption, especially bribery, is to avoid problems with authorities and sometimes to cut through layered bureaucratic processes and cocoon of strangling regulations that we confront in our daily interactions. These facts are confirmed by the latest worldwide public opinion survey on corruption, 2010 Global Corruption Barometer, a worldwide released by Transparency International (TI). According to this survey “almost half of all respondents say they paid bribes to avoid problems with the authorities and a quarter say it was to speed up processes.” There in an old saying say that “time is money” and so anyone that understands the monetary value of time, and concept of opportunity cost inherent in that old saying, would not be surprised that rational people would pay bribes to speed up processes. Naturally, this suggests that if we can loosen the albatross of on the red tape hanging around the country’s neck, then bribery might subside. This may not necessarily be true unless it is backed by other measures, all brewed in a sustained, national holistic effort.
Speaking of old sayings it is said that “the fish rots from the head down”, so you must cut off the rotten head before the rest of the fish gets rotten. This saying is eerily applicable to corruption, except that it’s going to take collective effort to cut off the rotten head of the “fish”. Here are three suggestions to complement existing measures for dealing with the culture of corruption in our country:

1. A Massive National Campaign. Corruption cannot be rooted out by a presidential fiat or a parliamentary act. It can only be rooted out if there is widespread public engagement in the fight. If a large segment of the public is actively engaged in this fight, it will put unbearable pressure on those in authority to put their own houses in order, and have the moral standing and credibility to bring the full weight of the law to bear on those who engage in corrupt practices. But public engagement requires greater access to information and legal and social protections for whistleblowers. That’s why the passage of the Freedom of information Act is crucial, and the Whistleblower Act of 2006 is commendable. However, in spite of its good intentions and legal niceties, how many Ghanaians are aware of the Whistleblower Act, 2006, and how they can rely on it to help the country fight corruption. That’s why I think we need a massive national campaign that should rival the campaigns of “Operation Feed Yourself” and the switch from left-hand driving to right-hand driving in the 1970s. This campaign should be localized – customized in local languages – with a simple message and short instructions about what the citizens can do when they witness corrupt practices wherever they occur.

2. The Zero Cedi Note: This is a brilliant idea credited to Vijay Anand, an Indian software entrepreneur, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland in the US and founder of the NGO the Fifth Pillar, to fight corruption in his home state of Tamil Nadu in India. This idea is being appropriated all around the globe, especially with the launch of ZeoCurrency.org. Anand’s idea was to create a visual aid known as “The Zero Rupee note”, whose design specifications mimic the Indian 50 Rupee note. Printed on the front of the note in both English and Tamil is the inscription: “Eliminate Corruption at all levels” and “I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe”. On the back of the note are the goals, contact details and the website address of 5th Pillar. The idea is that when a corrupt official suggests a citizen should pay a bribe to get something done, they can hand over the Zero Rupee note. Anand explains, “To fight it I knew that we would need to focus not just on a small group of activists but on getting all citizens involved.” Why has this idea been successful? According to Anand the Zero Rupee notes have been successful in fighting corruption in India for a number of reasons: (a) bribery is a crime in India punishable with jail time; (b) corrupt officials seldom encounter resistance by ordinary people that they become scared when people have the courage to stand up to them and how their zero rupee notes; (c) officials don’t want to join the large pool of unemployment and are fearful about setting off disciplinary proceedings and risking going to jail; (d) the willingness of the people to use the notes because they are no longer afraid, and that they have nothing to lose, and know that they are not alone in this fight. We can borrow this idea, replicate it with our own Zero Cedi Note, but the idea customized it to meet our peculiar circumstances and needs. Even though the Zero Rupee note was a private initiative, and therefore might not have been subjected to the whims and caprices of political influences, I believe that we can have a public version of it in Ghana. The key question is who will coordinate this enterprise. My suggestion is that we empower the office of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) to be the nerve center for this effort with district outfits to handle local cases that may not warrant national attention.

3. Everyone-as-informant mapping technology. When I taught Global Development, one of the things I liked to talk about was how societies are increasingly relying on everyone-as-informant mapping technology to address pressing issues like riots, stranded refugees, rapes, deaths, trapped victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters. A pioneering technology in this area was started by a small Kenyan-born organization called Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili). This idea was conceived by Kenyan lawyer Ory Okolloh, and was born out of the violence that erupted after Kenya’s disputed elections in 2007. According to the New York Times, during the violence the site relied on user-generated cell-phone reports to collect testimonies - with greater rapidity than any reporter- of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and deaths and plotted them on a map, using the locations given by informants. The Ushahidi Web platform has been used in other circumstances around the world. For example, it was used to find trapped victims in the recent Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, and even in Washington D.C. to map road blockages. The good news is that Ushahidi is open-source software that lets others remix its tool for new projects. So as a country we can use this platform to deal with corruption.

The way it will work is to have a national texting number and advertise this number via radio stations (FMs) and other media outlets. As the data comes in, you create a “corruption map” that may help to reveal some underlying pattern of reality. Perhaps this project can be started on a pilot basis, starting with our governmental agencies before we nationalize it if is feasible. For example we can create a “corruption map” for governmental agencies on which data from text messages from those who encounter corrupt practices at these agencies will be plotted. This will help to know which agencies to focus our attention on to cut off the rotten head of the fish.