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There is no single solution to corruption in the region. However, where the necessary political will exists there are several tools that can be wielded to great effect. One of the most powerful in this respect is technology.
As the World Bank notes, “Aside from serving as prerequisites for democracy, access to information and transparency are key tools in the fight against corruption that lead to openness and a level playing field for both governments and markets."
Put simply, technology enables citizens to access information, reducing the room for middlemen to exploit situations. One obvious example is the way in which farmers now benefit from being able to check local market prices by SMS.
Leaks of financial information such as the Panama Papers, which saw 2.6 terabytes of data and 11.5 million documents released in 2016, have been instrumental in increasing scrutiny and pressure for accountability regarding the use of offshore accounts and tax havens globally.
Closer to home the #GuptaLeaks in South Africa have had a huge impact on the country’s political class. While the family had been in the spotlight for its political connections for some time, when an email cache of more than 100,000 messages leaked in early 2017 it prompted a much wider conversation about state capture in the country that has seen several ministers depart from government. A full commission of inquiry into the matter has been underway for more than a year, and while no one has yet been prosecuted, both business leaders and politicians alike have seen that it will no longer be so easy to hide corrupt deals and dodgy relationships from public view.
E-governance is another opportunity to harness technology in the fight against corruption. Online platforms are not simply a lower cost solution in the long run, but by recording and logging all activity digitally they support bids to improve transparency and eliminate the space for corruption. This is supported by IMF analysis looking at the cost of corruption across the globe in which researchers found that “when governments invest in information and communication technologies and transparency increases, there are fewer opportunities to ask for bribes.”
It is also possible to run analytics across online systems to raise flags where fraud or corruption could be taking place. So-called fraud analytics are already being deployed to generate warnings when transactions appear irregular across areas from taxation to healthcare. These will get more sophisticated over time.
Government procurement has too often proved fertile ground for graft and kickbacks. Even the most committed Government is going to struggle to ensure that project awards at all levels, from the local to the national, are squeaky-clean. By using technology the system is less open to abuse and awards can be queried and evaluated subsequently to check the information. The IMF has noted that in Chile and Korea, electronic procurement systems have been powerful tools to improve transparency and curtail corruption.
Finally, technology can also be used to empower people across society to report corruption easily and, where they fear the consequences of speaking up, anonymously. Phone Apps and websites can be used to report and record corruption. For example, India’s ‘I paid a bribe’ website has sparked similar initiatives elsewhere and the World Bank has its own ‘Integrity’ App, which enables users to report concerns relating to its projects.
Technology alone is not enough, but the opportunity it presents to expose and eliminate corruption across the region is considerable. What East Africa needs now is the political will to develop the necessary supportive legal framework and capacitated law-enforcement authorities so that is can be deployed to great effect.