At a busy intersection in downtown Freetown, motorbike-taxi drivers wait for customers. They pass the time telling tales of petty corruption. “Yesterday I was chased by two policemen,” says a young man, slouched forward on his bike seat. “They told me I was violating a law when I wasn’t, and confiscated my motorbike. I had to pay 100,000 leones ($18) to get it back.” Two other drivers butt in, eager to trump his story with their own.
It is not hard to find a Sierra Leonean who has experienced corruption. A survey carried out in 2013 by Transparency International, an advocacy group, shows the country to have the highest rates of bribery in the world. Some 84% of respondents admitted to having paid a bribe. Corruption runs so deep that it is hard to eliminate.
But at least some are trying. In September the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) launched a scheme, in partnership with Britain’s overseas aid ministry, called “Pay No Bribe”. The project provides a hotline, a phone app and a web portal for citizens anonymously to report everyday corruption. The toll-free number goes through to a call centre staffed by two softly spoken young women, Lucy and Jeneba. They sit patiently in front of computers and listen to tinny jazz on their headsets while waiting for calls to come in.
One afternoon, after 20 minutes of rusty clarinet sounds, Lucy receives a call. It is the piping voice of a ten-year-old girl saying “My teacher locked us in the classroom because we refused to buy soup from her.” When the call is over and the details have been logged, Lucy explains that this kind of complaint is not uncommon: “The teachers bring in foods to sell to the children at lunch and if they don’t have money to buy them then they are made to stay in the classroom and miss their breaks.”
The girl calling in doesn’t have to give the name of her teacher, just the district in which her school is. This is because the scheme aims to identify areas of high corruption instead of individuals. At the end of each month, complaints go out to relevant ministries and agencies, who then have a further month to come back and describe what action they are taking to improve matters. In the first month 712 reports were filed, half relating to the police. Almost all demands were for cash, though 5% were for sex.
Though it is encouraging to see that efforts are being made, it will take more than this scheme to have any real impact. Pay No Bribe has yet to create a culture of accountability: few policemen, for example, seem even to have heard of it so far. Sierra Leone looks likely to stay high in the corruption ratings for a while yet.
Source: The Economist