Memos From The Developing World: Cairo, Corruption and Cultural ChangeApril 1st, 2011
What makes a middle-class, middle-age, Middle-Eastern mother risk her life, liberty and livelihood to join street demonstrators and stand up against a mighty ruler? Think about it. Behind the masses in Cairo and elsewhere, there is a moment of personal decision. Something tips your scale toward involvement. Something finally makes you care. Suddenly, getting your government to be accountable to you -- and not the other way around -- is worth putting it all on the line. It reaches the top of your value list.
But what if that change in values -- that cultural change -- could take place as part of a society's normal evolution, rather than by revolution? Could people be taught to relish public accountability? Can the demand for "good governance" be created, or at least fostered? These are critical questions for developing countries, who cannot afford bad governments. For them, mistaken or corrupt policies usually mean more poverty, and the immediate suffering that goes with it.
We know surprisingly little about how to make people value good government. There are, however, plenty of hypotheses -- and some experiments. First hypothesis: it's about kindergartens. Like any other change in culture, you start by teaching little kids. This of course has been used for good (e.g., Greenpeace) and for evil (e.g., Hitler). But it works. The problem is that it takes a generation, and it is not cheap (to start with, you have to have a functioning school system). In the developing world, Mexico pioneered some of this in its fight against petty corruption through the "No Más Mordidas!" campaign.
Second hypothesis: it's about money. If you want citizens to care about how their government manages resources, give them a direct stake. Imagine if a percentage of the profits of a national oil company (think of Venezuela's oil giant PDVESA) were to be transferred directly to every resident, no questions asked. What do you think would happen with public interest in and scrutiny over the company's performance and transparency? There would be instant demand for accountability -- if it doesn't find and sell oil, you personally lose money. Now picture the same mechanism applied to Africa's bountiful extractive industries, from diamonds to gold to timber. (Prediction: in ten years, this kind of direct rent transfers will be common practice).
Third hypothesis: it's about connectivity. That the internet, social media and smarter phones help people act collectively is indisputable. But having the means to hold your government accountable is different from actually holding it accountable. When was the last time you visited the website of your country's ministry of finance to check on the execution of the budget? Or tweeted about the lack of investment in public infrastructure? Do you know the name of your minister of education, the one that makes policy over your children's learning? The good news here comes from Africa: its citizens are embracing cellular phones with gusto and are using them to report on public services -- or lack thereafter. In parts of rural Tanzania, parents have been given phones to report teachers that do not show up to school. Teachers unions hate this, which is the whole point.
Fourth hypothesis: it's about free media. We tend to care about the news we hear about most loudly. And poor governance is rarely breaking news; in fact, the deterioration in public accountability is usually a slow, imperceptible, folkloric decline. But think again. Over the past decade or so, international non-governmental organizations have managed to produce indexes that benchmark governments against each other. When Transparency International publishes its annual "Corruption Perception Index," journalists have a field day telling us how bad our country compares with our neighbors'. Ditto when the OECD puts out the results of its tri-annual Programme for International Student Assessment--that's the week when we all talk about how East Asians are leaving (almost) everybody else in the educational dust. There are plenty more examples--now you can know how competitive, polluted, democratic, developed, or fair your nation really is. The news, especially when it is bad news, is beginning to wake us to demand performance from those that lead us. This is accountability by global name-and-shame.
Fifth hypothesis: it's about institutions. You need certain tools to make your demand for public accountability stick. The most obvious is access to information, and the laws that make it possible. You need technical agencies that can independently interpret the data for you -- those think-tanks, congressional budget offices, and ombudsman services are the best allies of the non-expert. And you need a court that will hear your complaints. That's where accessible judicial systems come in. Are all these institutional tools available to the average citizen in the developing world? No. But they are getting better, as societies become more open. Take the case of Ghana: its Parliament recently passed legislation giving civil society a direct-view balcony on how oil and gas contracts and revenues will be managed. Others are doing the same. Respect to them.
Which brings us to the sixth and final hypothesis: it's about democracy. If you lack basic civil liberties, if your freedom to vote or to speak is taken away, calling for accountability from public officials may be difficult -- and outright dangerous. But isn't that the message from that middle-age woman in Cairo? Isn't she saying that even if you ignore her children's education, squander her resources, shut down the web, silence the media, and manipulate institutions, she will one day risk it all and go out to demand good governance? In other words, bad governments don't last forever, in any culture.
--Marcelo Giugale, World Bank’s Director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs for Africa