Bringing bribery out into the open
By Nabila Rahhal
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A few months ago, a tiny car carrying a big message rolled into 26 cities and towns across Lebanon.
The Smart car was covered with images of a driver’s license, diploma, utility meter and a gavel, and embossed in Arabic, Dek kenet el balad (“The city’s store where everything is for sale”). The drivers would park the car in front of government administration offices, to shine a light on the corruption that greases almost every government transaction here.
The Kabseh car (it means “surprise visit”) was the work of a new NGO here called Sakker el Dekkene (“close the store”). Their goal was not just to shame bureaucrats. It was also to collect data. Sakker el Dekkene has launched a smartphone app, website and telephone hotline for citizens to report when they’ve needed to pay a bribe in order to conduct government business. People exiting the government offices stopped at Kabseh to report 920 bribes, including some they’d paid just moments before.
Sakker el Dekkene’s crowd-sourced platforms give Lebanese their first means of quantifying a scourge that is all around them. Citizens report the city where their bribe took place, which government office was responsible and the amount of the bribe. While the data are far from comprehensive and hard to verify — most users opt to remain anonymous — the reports paint a grim picture. In six months, nearly 1,550 reports have been filed, with the total value of bribes paid adding up to 2.1 billion Lebanese Lira ($1.4 million U. S.).
The goal of this data collection is to build public pressure on government to change. On its website, Sakker el Dekkene lists the most bribe-hungry agencies as its “champions of corruption.” The Ministry of Interior currently gets the “trophy” with 615 reports; the Ministry of Finance and Lebanon’s municipalities come in second and third.
“In order to really fight corruption, all citizens should be enabled to take action,” says Abdo Medlej, a co-founder of Sakker el Dekkene and until recently its president. “But for them to do so, you have to give them the tools.”
The platform’s users aren’t sure it will make a difference anytime soon. But they think transparency is an important first step to making change possible.
One of them is Rabih, a man in his 50s whose job is to process government transactions on behalf of people who pay him to do it for them (a common line of work here). Rabih, who did not want his last name used, says he frequently pays minor bribes — otherwise, he could not get anything done for his clients. He now reports every case. “It will not change corruption in Lebanon, as I believe it is a part of us now,” says Rabih, who guesses he’s Sakker el Dekkene’s biggest user. “But at least people will have statistics on the levels of corruption, and be aware of the terrible situation they are living in.”
Cynthia Bou Aoun, a lawyer in her 30s, says she used the Sakker el Dekkene app once, when one of her employees was asked to pay a bribe to speed up some paperwork. “The app helps me feel I can make at least a small difference in the fight against corruption,” she says, “though I know that it is a fight that takes years.”
A tool to take action
If they sound cynical, it’s because government here has historically been so unaccountable to its people. Citizens do not have easy access to their municipalities or even to their elected officials to have complaints heard. Frustrations build up within individuals, who may blow off steam about it with friends, but to no effect.
The widespread use of smart phones, however, has inspired some in Lebanese civil society to create new crowdsourced channels to pressure unresponsive bureaucrats. Sakker el Dekkene is one of them. Another is Waffir, a mobile app launched about a year and a half ago by the Muhanna Foundation.
Waffir is targeted at a very specific type of government failing: It allows users to report street lights that are either wrongly lit during the day or unlit at night. It’s the brainchild of the foundation’s board chairman, Ibrahim E. Muhanna, who had begun noticing lit lamps wasting electricity during the daytime — even as Lebanon suffers from an acute power shortage that causes power to be cut off daily.
Muhanna built Waffir (it means “use less”) to make it easy to report these cases. As citizens report faulty street lights, the phone’s GPS pinpoints the exact location, allowing Muhanna to compile the reports into a map. Waffir users reported more than 500 faulty street lights in the app’s first three months. “There are many people who will find a fault but not know who to report it to,” Muhanna says. “So the idea is really to facilitate reporting.”
Municipalities are responsible for street lights in Lebanon. Once a week, the Muhanna Foundation faxes a report to the head of the appropriate municipality. If the same light is still reported as wrongly lit a week later, Muhanna sends a warning. By the third warning, if no action is taken by the municipality, the foundation notifies the Ministry of Interior, which heads all the municipalities. If by the fourth week Waffir users are still reporting on the same light, Muhanna claims that they will go to the media to publicly shame the municipality.
While interest in Waffir has been promising, it’s also shown the difficulty of turning crowd-sourced data into responsive government action. Muhanna admits the foundation doesn’t have the manpower to follow up on every street light report. So with any case, it’s impossible to know whether a municipality actually fixed the light or a user simply gave up on reporting it. Muhanna also admits that while some municipalities have reached their fourth warning, he has not yet followed through on the threat to go to the media.
Sustaining public interest in using the app is also a challenge. After an initial surge of publicity and social media buzz produced a wave of street-light reports, the app now receives only seven reports a week. However, downloads of the app tick up every time Muhanna makes a public appearance to talk about it. The foundation is planning a campaign to create more regular publicity for Waffir. That includes sending text messages to people age 18 to 30 — the group Muhanna feels will use Waffir the most — introducing them to the app or reminding them to use it.
“What we found out,” Muhanna says, “is that people initially like the novelty of the application. But then it seems they lose interest after around two months.”
A long-term process
These are lessons Sakker el Dekkene is aware of. Although the ideas behind these crowd-sourced applications are powerful, Medlej explains that users need to feel that the act of reporting is important, even if it doesn’t lead to immediate change.
For Sakker el Dekkene, that means giving citizens the ability to build the evidence base, to pressure government into admitting that corruption is rampant. The NGO’s long-term goal is to propose to the government new legislation aimed at fighting corruption. “What we can do is apply enough pressure on the government for it to want to fight corruption,” Medlej says. “Real change is a long-term process.”
Sakker el Dekkene is also aware that for crowd-sourcing to work, promotion of its app needs to be continuous. The Kabseh car was an effective tool to get that started. As the car traveled around Lebanon, volunteers held group talks and street events to get people talking about how corruption affects their lives. In addition to rounding up bribery reports, the campaign whipped up a fair amount of local media coverage from town to town. The campaign has also visited universities, schools and shopping malls to get the word out.
While older Lebanese are inclined to believe that government officials will always be crooks, the younger generation is more optimistic. Not surprisingly, young adults make up the bulk of Sakker el Dekkene’s users, as well as its volunteers.
One of those volunteers, a 23-year old named Rami, says he hasn’t yet experienced corruption himself. But he says exposing corruption is important to making change possible.
“Sakker el Dekkene’s app can be a catalyst in fighting corruption if they keep up with the pressure and momentum that they began with,” Rami says. “We should encourage everyone to use the app and explain its importance in the fight against corruption in order to have quantifiable data to pressure those in power to change.”