“We wanted to put a market price on corruption," chuckles Awanti Bele, "it was a kind of lighthearted endeavour in the beginning." Her story is featured on this week's edition of South Asia Wired.
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Ms Bele is the manager of a website called I Paid a Bribe that was launched from Bangalore in India last August. The site asked people to tell of their encounters with the kind of small acts of corruption almost every Indian (and South Asian, and African and Latin American) comes across on an almost daily basis.
They were unprepared for the sheer volume of response that flooded in.
They paid bribes
Thousands of people wrote in. Someone wrote in to say they had to pay Rs 300 to get their marriage registration certificate; someone else had to pay Rs 50 to get their electricity turned back on though they’d paid their electric bill; another needed a birth certificate for their baby; someone else needed to slip in an unofficial Rs300 to get a loan for their mother’s medical expenses.
I Paid a Bribe had obviously touched a national nerve, and it was soon apparent to the tiny team of site managers that they were going to have to move from their lighthearted approach to one that actively fought corruption.
Naming and Shaming is out
Ms Bele is clear on one issue - that IPAB is not a sting operation. There is to be no naming and shaming. “Our site is based on anonymity – its illegal in India for people to pay a bribe, so we’re protecting those who write in. But also, we want to highlight that sometimes the people who take bribes are themselves victims.”
This refers to the fact that oftentimes the ordinary traffic cop or teacher or customs official will have paid a considerable sum of money to get that government job in the first place, or to get a transfer to the place where their family is. They’re forced into a situation where they have to make that initial investment back.
IPAB provides a forum for people to share their stories or simply vent. It also offers concrete advice on how a citizen can avoid having to pay a bribe by making them aware of how the system works.
And it’s working.
They’ve had chiefs from various public bureaus come to them, embarrassed at the number of complaints made against their department. They’re asking for advice on how to make their section work, circumventing the opportunity for personal skimming.
But its a long arduous task. 4% of the responses on I Paid a Bribe are about stories where people came across government officials who didn’t want a bribe.
It’s both a sorry indictment on the system, and a ray of hope for the future.
This article was originally published on 27 April 2011.