Notes from the Field

From Fractions to Millions: People Fighting Corruption Using Mobile Phones

September 21, 2011

During the 1980s, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an NGO working in rural Rajasthan in India, began to campaign for access to government records related to wage employment programs for the rural poor. In the course of its work, MKSS discovered that accessing official records and information was critical to exposing corrupt practices by officials at a local level.

Indian shopkeeper

India's social audit approach allows India’s poor to play an active role in reducing day-to-day corruption, such as siphoning of pensions from the elderly, appropriating the wages of daily labourers, or diverting subsidized food grains from beneficiaries. Photo by Karl Grobl.

This soon became the central strategy in their fight against acts of corruption. MKSS rallied the support of other NGOs in Rajasthan, and started protests to make access to official records a legal right. The success of this movement in Rajasthan encouraged organizations in other parts of India to join hands with MKSS in lobbying for a powerful right to information law for the whole of India, which was passed in 2005.

MKSS and other NGOs involved in India’s right to information movement realized that merely having access to government records was not enough given the sheer complexity of the records and the public’s ability to understand them. Over the last 20 years, they have developed a system for collecting, processing, and verifying government records and information on the ground. This process, known as a social audit, has now become one of the most popular tools to combat corruption in India.

Social auditing evolved in a rural setting in response to corruption that happens on a regular basis at the village level. This form of corruption is often referred to as corruption in the “last mile,” and it manifests in forms such as siphoning of pensions from the elderly, appropriating the wages of daily labourers, or diverting subsidized food grains from beneficiaries. The social audit approach allows India’s poor to play an active role in reducing corruption in their communities.

Social audits are typically organized by NGOs that work closely with the community, though some state governments in India have institutionalized this method with official patronage. The process of an audit involves gathering official records about a particular government project or development work (like cash books, muster rolls, measurement books, and supply lists) and verifying if the activities and projects on paper, actually exist in reality. For example, let’s say that a ration shop that distributes subsidized food grains has recorded that Ram came to the shop every month and received 10 kg of wheat each month for the last six months. A social audit cross verifies this information through a door-to-door survey, where Ram is asked if he actually received his entitlement. If the audit finds that Ram did not receive his fair share, the community has proof that the ration shop siphoned rations and thus the act of  act of corruption is exposed. The power of this process is evident by the fact that even though very few convictions happen on the basis of the findings of a social audit, data shows that the levels of corruption have reduced appreciably in places where audits have been organized regularly. After the data has been compiled, a large public gathering is organized where the data and findings from the audit are presented to the public. Typically, government officials, administrators, and citizens are invited to participate in these gatherings.

The fundamental method of a social audit seems rather simple at first glance: access the official record and cross-verify it with the person receiving the services or goods, such as the case with Ram. But, when you dig more deeply into the actual details of how the process takes place, there are many complexities and challenges. For example, one needs a lot of experience and expertise in order to understand which records to access and whether they are complete and accurate. Once official records are obtained, it takes considerable skill and time to process the records before the door-to-door survey for verification of records can take place. These and other complexities make a social audit a costly affair requiring considerable human resources, skills, time, and organizational effort. As a result, social auditing has not been adopted on a wide scale throughout India, despite its promise. My hope is that with the right technology, the process can become more streamlined and efficient, and thus adopted more broadly.

I am working on an initiative at Stanford University’s Program on Liberation Technology to explore ways that technology, and particularly mobile phones, can be used to combat corruption at the grassroots level and enhance the existing social audit approach. Through basic mobile phone SMS technology, official records on basic individual entitlements such as pensions, subsidized food grain, and maternity entitlements could be delivered to individuals via monthly text messages. Individuals, such as Ram in the scenario mentioned above, would be able to compare the count provided in the text message with the amount of rice he actually received. This would help him identify if he received what is legally due to him, or if a part of his entitlement was swindled without his knowledge.

We hope that this knowledge in itself would empower people who have been victims of corruption and would enable them to use this information to approach various grievance redressal mechanisms that they have access to. This might involve approaching senior officials, confronting the corrupt, or even taking up protests against the corrupt. At a later stage of the project, it may be possible to add other features that would enable the victims of corruption to take action using mobile phones. For example, the SMS could include the phone number of responsible officials, or an NGO could collect the complaints and initiate action on the victim’s behalf. While possibilities abound, we believe that the best initiative will come from the people themselves.

The main benefit of using SMS technology is that it requires very limited skill, knowledge, or effort from the user. And, it eliminates costly and time-consuming in-person surveys and audits. By using this technology, official information can be disseminated on a regular basis, unlike in the current model where social audits are done sporadically.

Like any technology tool, this of course has its limitations. One of the critical functions of social auditing in India has been its role in mobilizing the general public. The process of gathering people together face-to-face in a public meeting creates a collective energy, which can motivate people to fight corruption. By digitizing this system, these public gatherings will no longer be needed. That said, we believe that mobile technology brings the ability to more widely and regularly expose corruption that directly affects individuals, and as a result, has the power to ultimately lead to even greater collective anger that is often a precursor to mobilization. Further, it arms individuals with precise information – something they never had before – that officials cannot argue or ignore.

The project has now received the commitment of officials in the states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh in India and a team that we helped organize is just starting to build the basic technology to store and disseminate public records. We will start with select programs such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India and expand the coverage over the next few years. Once the technology is ready, it will be implemented for two years in randomly selected villages, so that we can test if it has an impact on corruption compared to other villages where the system has not been introduced.

In the last 15 years, the number of countries with right to information laws has increased dramatically. Along with this, there is increasing digitization of public records, which will make this kind of exercise relatively cheap. This means that we now have the legal and technical infrastructure to enable millions –rather than a small number of well organized groups – to combat corruption.

S. Vivek manages Stanford University’s Program on Liberation Technology. He can be reached at vivekdse@stanford.edu. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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