Growing up in Madagascar and Kenya, I became rather familiar with corruption. Demands for bribes crept into the most everyday of activities, from picking up parcels at the post office, to getting a prescription, or connecting a phone line to the house. Policemen would stop cars at random and tell the drivers their papers were out of order. University lecturers would require a bribe to pass their students, meaning the poorest were at risk of failing no matter how intelligent and hard working they might be.
My parents took a hard stand on corruption, and never paid a bribe as a matter of principle. That meant sometimes waiting months for a rubber stamp from some petty official. One year we lost our summer holiday when the Land Rover was impounded by customs officials. We also developed little escape techniques – if a policeman was angling for a bribe, we’d agree to paying a fine if we could do it at the station and get a receipt, at which point they usually waved us on as too much hassle.
But we were white, relatively wealthy, and so we were treated differently. We never faced the crushing inevitability of corruption, and it was never life-and-death in the way it was for the poorest. For most ordinary people, it’s just a way of life. A few years ago a research project into corruption in Kenya found that the average citizen paid 18 bribes a month, at a cost of £93 in total. In a country where the average salary is just £295 a month, that’s a pretty hefty percentage of one’s income.
Corruption is a cancer on society, and it’s notoriously tough to root it out once it’s endemic, so I was excited to read about a website earlier this year that had developed a new approach to fighting corruption. Ipaidabribe.com encourages Indians to report where and when they’ve had to pay a bribe. They do so anonymously, and no individual officials are named. Instead, the site provides data about corruption bottlenecks. As more and more people registered the bribes they’d paid, the organisation behind the site was able to pinpoint particular areas – the process of getting a driver’s license, for example. Armed with the data, campaigners approached the Department of Transport and challenged them, and the result was an overhaul of the process and a whole new automated driving test.
Writing about it over the summer, I expressed my hope that the Ipaidabribe model would be widely replicated, and I was pleased to discover that there is now a project in Kenya. Visitors to Ipaidabribe.or.ke can tell their bribe story, or let people know where they didn’t have to pay a bribe, meaning the site highlights government departments that are operating with integrity as well as those that are abusing their powers.
Kenya’s ipaidabribe site was set up by Anthony Ragui and the Wamini Trust, and it’s identical to the Indian site. Plans to incorporate an SMS service will bring it within reach of the average Kenyan, and while it’s only got a month’s worth of reports online so far, it could be a powerful tool in fighting corruption in Kenya.