Truth-by-phone: How PNG is pitting the humble mobile phone against massive corruption
23 Oct 2014 by Tito Balboa
Papua New Guinea stands at one of the most decisive junctures in its development.
With predicted record levels of economic growth of 20% for 2015, the country has a unique opportunity to leverage significant sustainable and equitable improvements of Human Development of the more than 7 million Papua New Guineans. However, if poor choices are made, the impact of the high growth rates will be limited, even detrimental to the development prospects of the nation. This ‘paradox of plenty’ occurred when a 20% growth rate in the early 1990s was followed by a ‘lost decade’ for the majority of the population.
Despite the Government of PNG’s increased budget allocations to provincial, district and local level governments by 87% over the last two years, low implementation capacity at sub-national level has prevented the high volume of resources to translate effectively into improvements in the lives of the population. One reason for this inefficiency is corruption.
In 2013, government task force estimated that almost 40% of PNG’s annual budget (approx. USD 6.5 billion) was lost to corruption and mismanagement, a worrying number that seems to be confirmed by Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index, and the World Bank’s Global Governance Corruption Index.
Encouraging the reporting and denouncing of corruption is difficult in a culturally communitarian and complex environment with over 850 languages, where the benefit of the community and the wantok (clan) system is an end that justifies most means.
While the abuse of public trust for individual benefit is seen as inappropriate, most citizens do not know where and how to denounce corruption and often fear violent retribution, corruption reporting mechanisms need to be expanded across the country.
That’s where UNDP’s ‘Phones Against Corruption’ Initiative comes in, offering an alternative safe space for reporting corrupt practices. Trialed with 1,200 staff of the Department of Finance (DoF), UNDP helped introduce a corruption reporting tool through mobile messaging. Easily accessible, anonymous and free of charge to the general public, this crowdsourcing approach is expected to be made available to the general public in a year’s time.
All reported cases are referred to the DoF’s Internal Audit and Compliance Division for further investigation in collaboration with relevant state bodies responsible for criminal investigations and prosecution.
During the launch of the initiative in July, 2014, one DoF staff greeted this initiative with enthusiasm, stating that “whistle-blowers have been living in fear, but Phones Against Corruption now gives us confidence to report misconduct”.
And the enthusiasm is reflected in the use of ‘Phones Against Corruption’. Since the launch of the initiative in July this year, 1,538 text messages have been received from 384 different users, as of September this is an average of 41 messages per day.
Making the reporting tool known to DoF staff and later the public is important for its effective use. Therefore, UNDP has embarked on an awareness and communication strategy with media organizations, including a short video clip screened on TV.
And now the ripples are spreading beyond PNG.
The Australian-based SMS software provider, Mobimedia, has received requests from Bangladesh, Fiji, and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, about the effectiveness of this tool in combating corruption for possible replication in those countries in the near future.