Liberia: Using Technology To Stamp Out Corruption

By:  R. Joyclyn Wea with New Narratives

MONROVIA-Corruption has plagued Liberia since its founding and threatens to engulf the Weah administration still reeling from the US Treasury’s dramatic move to place three top ministers on the Magnitsky Sanctions List.

It is well proven that corruption constrains economic growth entrenching the majority of Liberians in extreme poverty.

“Widespread public corruption has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, as such the need to take intentional steps to fight it cannot be over-emphasized,” says Harold Aidoo, head of Integrity Watch, an anti-corruption organization.

The answer, according to Aidoo, is to help citizens play a more active role in calling out corruption. To do that his organization has developed a Liberia-first mobile application, or “App” that he says, will make that easier.

“Talkay App” is designed to allow everyday Liberians to quickly and easily report acts of corruption directly to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) through their phone without paying any data charges. Aidoo hopes that the app will help reduce public corruption, resulting in the development of affordable health centers, schools, and roads among other things. He says stamping out low-level corruption would make it less acceptable at every level.

The recent admission by former Minister Nathaniel McGill – forced to resign because of the Magnitsky designation – that “even if I do steal I am not carrying it outside, I am using it right in the country,” hints at how widespread is ignorance of the destructive impacts of corruption.

“Corruption is systematic, it’s endemic and that is why this tool has come to address corruption to make sure that we fight the systematic corruption in our society,” Aidoo says. “We address the endemic corruption in our body politics, in our social fabric. This tool has come to make sure that we get rid of corruption and we are looking forward to everybody in our society to use this tool that we drive corruption away from our society.”

The ‘Talkay’ is a local Liberian pigeon English word meaning “gives one the free will to go ahead and report any happening.” The App, designed for mobile phone users, can be downloaded free at the Google Play Store.

It is designed to be as easy as possible allowing users to click on choices including “bribery” “extortion” “molestation” and “misuse of government office”. Users can then upload photo, video, and audio files.

It will be some time before the results are known. The App’s release was derailed by the controversial recent overhaul of the Anti-Corruption Commission by the government which fired all staff and asked them to reapply for their jobs.

“That has impacted this exercise a little bit because you need to have the anti-grift institution functional for citizens to be able to report because these reports are going to the LACC, so if there is no functioning LACC, it means that it is going to be difficult to fight corruption,” Aidoo says.

The App had deep support among the outgoing staff of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission but it is not known whether the new administration will be as supportive.

Everyone in Liberia has stories of corruption they encounter daily, sometimes hourly. But before now it has been impossible to gather data on just how prevalent it is. The most well-known measure of corruption is the Transparency International Corruption Index measures perception of corruption, not actual corruption.

The App will serve as a source of real evidence-based data that policymakers can use to address the systematic problems that are often associated with corruption in Liberia.

“This tool provides us as civil society and government evidence-based data in terms of how many people have experienced corruption or have paid a bribe or been asked to pay bribe by the system,” Aidoo says.

The App is intended to help the LACC get real-time information about what is happening about corruption around the country as well as make reporting corruption easy and accessible to the public.

“We are also training young people under the same project which is a three-year project, to deploy them across the country so that they will be able to use the application and report on corruption,” said LACC Executive Director Moses Kowo.

The App is based on similar Apps that have been used successfully in other countries including in Eastern Europe and the Balkans since 2015.

This is not the first time an App has been used in Liberia to enable citizens to report problems. In 2014 the Sustainable Development Institute launched an App called “Timby” for communities affected by oil palm plantations that allowed them to share or company activities and violations. It has taken time to get going but SDI says it is now collecting valuable information. SDI did not share any evidence of the Apps success with the New Republic.

“The app is working and very effective. At first, when we introduced it, it was only one community that was using it, but now we are using it in six different communities in Gbarpolu, Sinoe, Grand Kru, Maryland, Grand Bassa, and Grand Cape Mount,” said SDI’s Nornor Bee. “More cases are being reported and actions taken, and even companies themselves have started using the app to report.”

Nornor said they have received many cases and have used the information to create a series of newsletters on issues in different communities geared toward compliance. In one case evidence gathered through the App led to a documentary that she says, forced the company UK-based Equatorial Palm Oil to enter into an MOU with the community.

Aidoo thinks this tool will do better than previous Apps because it is not only internet dependent and allows users to access it free from data charges.

“We developed this app taking into consideration internet connection in the country knowing that not everywhere has internet access and not everyone also may have money to be able to send information using the app,” Aidoo says. “So if you don’t have internet you can also use the SMS platform which enables you to send your information without any charge using any of the GSM companies.  The system it has a way that it bills us and we pay for it. All you need to do is to send your report.”

Public Awareness Campaign to Come

Once the Anti-Corruption Commission gets back up and running Liberians should expect to hear about the App everywhere.

“We are reaching out to the country.  We are reaching out to everybody,” said Lawrence Yealue, head of Accountability Lab which is in charge of the awareness campaign. “We are reaching out to government institutions, those in power their colleagues, their workers, we are reaching out to communities.”

The big question now is when will the Anti-Corruption Commission get back to work so backers of the App can see if it delivers on their lofty expectations.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.


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