Alejandro Salas: An Anti-Corruption Kit under the Christmas Tree

You might get a powerful corruption-fighting kit under the tree this year if you are given a computer, tablet, a smartphone or other sophisticated communications device. And the great thing is that you don’t even need to be living in a highly corrupt environment to start using your presents. With the help of technology you can easily support the corruption fight from anywhere.

Information and communication technology (usually referred to as ICT) can beat those who use their power to enrich themselves. From the possibility of accessing public information on a government’s web page, to the use of social networks to convene hundreds or thousands of people to an event against impunity, technology makes a tough struggle easier. It also shows how transparency is an essential precondition for curbing corruption.

A good example of how technology can reduce corruption risks is e-governance. It is the use of ICT for delivering government services and exchange of information between the public, government and business.

E-governance reduces the interaction between public servants and citizens which otherwise is a potential fertile ground for corruption as it links the one holding the power with one needing the service.

E-governance reduces the interaction between public servants and citizens which otherwise is a potential fertile ground for corruption as it links the one holding the power with one needing the service.

Imagine yourself a couple of decades ago in a public registrar’s office in a municipality in my country of origin, Mexico. You are waiting in line to request a copy of your birth certificate. While you are in line, you are exposed to intermediaries, in Mexico called “coyotes”. They offer to speed up the paperwork in exchange of a payment, which can be tempting if you need to get back to work, need to be on time to pick up the kids at school, or you are simply tired of being there for several hours.

If you resist the temptation of using the coyote, once you reach the front of the queue you might be told that you are missing a document, that your pictures are the wrong size or that your signature is too blurry. No matter what the “problem” is, if the rules are not clear and easily accessible to all, you are exposed to the discretion of the public servant. Again, you are tempted to pay an “extra fee” to be able to get your birth certificate without having to return the next day and start the whole process again.

So, how can this be prevented? Technology is one of the answers. A citizen dealing with a computer in a situation where rules are clear and procedures standardized could hardly be tempted to bribe the machine.

Not long ago, I visited the municipality of Colima in the Mexican West coast and discovered public kiosks with computers accessible to all. By following simple instructions and paying a few coins you could print the official documents you needed. Magic! The coyote disappeared as did the bribes.  

Of course, there are other more sophisticated uses of ICT for good governance, such as e-procurement systems where tenders, prices, transactions, rules and all issues related to the hiring of services and purchase of goods can be monitored in real time. Any journalist or citizen can access the data from the comfort of their home.

This is what happened in Mexico in 2001, when it was discovered that the president's office had bought embroidered towels at $400 apiece. The spending came to light after journalists utilized Compranet, a government website established to make procurement transparent. This Mexican presidential expenses controversy, dubbed Toalla-gate (Towel-gate), resulted in the resignations of staff members involved.

Yet, be aware that even if tradition says that only those that have behaved well during the year get presents, in reality that is not the case. Technology can be used to circumvent governments by criminals. Recently, a Mexican drug cartel kidnapped a group of telecommunication technicians and engineers to set up their own Telecom network which not only provided them with exclusive communications channels but also allowed them to intercept others’ communications.

But even those using ICT with the right intentions should be cautious as it is easy to accidentally expose private information.

Needless to say, there are many more ways of how to use your new tech gadgets for anti-corruption, for example as election monitoring or corruption reporting tools. Next year, once you have opened your Christmas presents and have charged the batteries, I’ll go into more detail. In the meantime, happy holidays!

Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter  @ASalasTI The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International.

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