Written by James Kiawoin and Sakari Ishetiar
In 2013, a Liberian government official was recorded colluding with another high-ranking government official to embezzle public resources. On the tape, he was caught saying “you eat, I eat,” which signified an acceptance that the two would engage in personal enrichment at the public’s cost, without fear of consequences.
The Representative faced serious public backlash, but as with most cases involving top officials, there was no action. About two years later, the Representative’s daughter died from an asthma attack during Liberia’s Ebola crisis. The hospital could not treat her because they were overstretched by the pandemic. He sued the hospital for neglect and recklessness. This was the talk of the town. Ordinary Liberians thought his lawsuit should not be taken seriously because his allegedly corrupt acts had diverted resources from the health system.
While a case like this generates intense public disgust and debate, there are many layers of corruption in Liberia that are almost universally accepted. These cases are practically routine. For example, the Liberian police regularly stop taxis and private vehicles, and the driver reaches their hand out of the window for a handshake every time, exchanging bribe money in their palm. In most cases, public taxis don’t have the correct documents and these small bribes are less disruption than jail time.
Liberia is recovering from fourteen years of civil war and still trying to restore basic social norms. By the end of the war in 2003, corruption had permeated all layers of society, a by-product of a prolonged civil war that weakened government capacity to monitor and enforce rules, and a corroded social fabric that tolerated—and valorized—corruption. Often, paying bribes was more expedient than dealing with dysfunctional bureaucracies, and so bribes became normalized.
Generations of citizens have grown accustomed to believing that all public officials are corrupt. They tolerate instances of bribery in their daily lives, struggling to imagine a country where civil servants serve the public good over their own interests. Public officials, on the other hand, feel little pressure to pursue reform as long as citizens believe corruption to be an inseparable part of Liberian culture.
Corruption has hindered much needed reconstruction and development in Liberia. Large-scale development projects have stalled or sputtered out as significant portions of their funding has bled out to expensive contracts, salaries for non-working employees, and skimming by management.
Relation to SDGs
Implementing the United Nations’ (UN) ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires substantial public sector financing and strong government institutions. In low and middle income countries, where the bulk of these investments are needed, public sector institutions are usually resource-constrained. High levels of corruption and financial mismanagement significantly reduce public sector resources allocated to enhance the public good and to tackle big structural problems, making corruption one of the biggest impediments to achieving the SDGs. Corruption also undermines the institutional capacity of agencies that should be in the frontline of implementing programs to alleviate inequality and multiple forms of deprivation.
“Almost one in five firms worldwide report receiving at least one bribery payment request when engaged in regulatory or utility transactions.” – United Nations Sustainable Development
Recognizing that resource-skimming reduces the per-dollar impact of otherwise effective development programs, the SDG committee designed Goal 16 towards improving “peace, Justice, and strong institutions” across the world.
Implementing and monitoring partners have also taken note of the link between corruption and the development cycle. José Ugaz, Chairperson of Transparency International, stresses that “with corruption, there’s no sustainable development,” highlighting the inability of institutions that are riddled with leakage to deliver upon major development projects. Similarly, Transparency’s Advocacy Manager, Rukshana Nanayakkara, comments that “without sufficient, careful investment taking place in just and inclusive societies, development happens very slowly.” Even where development projects are implemented nominally, corruption and embezzlement can prevent them from reaching their intended level of impact.
An analogy of a road funded by public money goes a long way in explaining how corruption can hinder development. Suppose that in rural Liberia, six villages are not connected to the main transportation system, rendering both inward service delivery and outward participation in the economy difficult. An international aid agency has delivered to a Liberian transport official some millions of dollars to construct the road, and expedite the integration of these villages into the service and good economy. With 50% of funds lost to embezzlement, one can imagine three of the villages remaining unconnected entirely, reducing the public goods output of the project. More commonly, however, the road is built to all six villages – but with the use of poor construction materials due to lucrative service contracts and skimming, the road may last only a year. After a few short months, the villages are in need of development assistance once again.
Problems like these indeed kept the Liberian Port Authority from reopening for almost a decade, stymieing the post-war recovery of the entire national economy.
Integrity Idol’s Answer
Despite the omnipresence of corruption in Liberia, some organizations continue to think critically about attacking the core biases that enable it. One such organization, Accountability Lab, supports change-makers to develop and implement positive ideas for integrity in their communities, unleashing positive social and economic change. One of their flagship programs is Integrity Idol, which fights corruption by spotlighting non-corrupt civil servants to promote non-corrupt practices and encourage public confidence in governance. Integrity Idol began in 2014 in Nepal, spread to Liberia in 2015 after the end of the Ebola crisis, and has since spread to four other developing countries around the world. The program operates in Liberia as follows:
“Local teams of volunteers travel across their countries gathering nominations from citizens, hosting public forums and generating a national discourse on the need for public officials with integrity. The nominees are narrowed down to a final five in each country with the help of independent panels of experts.
“These finalists are then filmed and these episodes are shown on national television and played on the radio for a week, creating a national discussion offline and online. Citizens can vote for their favorites through SMS short-codes and through the website. The winner is crowned in a national ceremony in the capital.
“Integrity Idol celebrates individuals, but those that serve the public good. It provides an outlet for a national conversation in positive terms about the change we’d like to see and the people we would like to be working in government on our behalf.” –Integrity Idol website
What problems did Integrity Idol face?
Though Integrity Idol’s answer to the sources of corruption is novel, it nonetheless faces a few key challenges in implementing its program in Liberia. The program’s answers to these questions may offer useful tools for policy designers of public visibility programs in other developing countries.
Initially, many of Liberia’s numerous non-corrupt public servants may have feared that exposure would make them targets of more corrupt colleagues or superiors. Integrity Idol addressed this problem by forging partnerships with key Liberian ministries, portraying the program and its contestants as no direct threat to current corrupt officials. The public visibility of the program, and its non-confrontational approach to publicity, encouraged proper participants while almost totally eliminating government interference.
To identify non-corrupt civil servants in remote or less accessible municipalities, Integrity Idol utilized a word of mouth system for nominating applicants. Rather than limiting nominations for civil servants to only current public employees, the applications were open to all citizens. Anyone who had positive interactions with a public servant was encouraged to share their story in the form of a nomination, and a plurality of nominations was the first indicator of a strong candidate.
To ensure identified civil servants indeed conducted their jobs with integrity, Integrity Idol implemented a system of multiple checks and verifications. Program staff traveled to the workplaces of the nominees and interviewed the nominees, their public servant colleagues, and citizens with whom they interacted. This multi-layered and personal process has helped keep glory-seekers outside the Integrity Idol net.
Finally, Integrity Idol faced an additional challenge of reaching contestants in remote areas of the country due to poor road conditions, especially during the rainy season. The program skirted this challenge by adjusting their annual calendar to the rhythm of the geography, avoiding intensive travel during the rainy season – including the showcasing of final contestants in the capital, Monrovia. The program’s solicitation and presentation dates are flexible, adjusting yearly to the seasons and to local conditions.
Integrity Idol’s Impact
Arriving in Liberia as researchers, we expected high-level government resistance to Integrity Idol. After all, any program seeking to undermine the ability of corrupt officials to profit from their position will create the conditions for spoilers – those officials have something to lose if the national culture moves past corruption. Surprisingly, we observed no government opposition whatsoever; in fact, many branches of the national government were extremely receptive to the program’s goals and methods, and had facilitated its growth and spread over the past few years with such favors as space on the national public broadcast radio.
Because Integrity Idol focuses on “naming and faming,” it is seen as a positive force for the morale of civil servants and the citizenry alike. Avoidance of “naming and shaming” ensured that the program was not seen as a threat even to corrupt officials; whatever challenges they might face would come from national sources of anti-corruption authority, mostly other government agencies. It also focuses citizens on medium-level bureaucrats: nominees are often those who interact with both citizens and their fellow civil servants. The conduct of high-level bureaucrats is more difficult for a citizen to observe at a granular level, while most street-level bureaucrats have too personal a relationship to the citizens who know them, and their conduct is not readily observed by their superiors. Therefore, both the high-level official and the bribe-collecting policeman who opened this article are nominated less often than the mid-level office manager of a public waste system, or water management office, or land deed office – to name a few examples.
But Integrity Idol’s goal is not to expose every policeman who takes a bribe. Certainly, in countries with high petty bribery, inventive citizens have developed smartphone apps to report such misdeeds and help citizens feel more empowered to resist corruption, but this can also make them targets of retribution. Integrity Idol seeks instead to address the national culture of corruption endemic in its host countries where, like in Liberia, a generation of young adults have grown up believing corruption is ubiquitous. By focusing on so-called “mules,” public servants who quietly do their duties with diligence, Integrity Idol is trying to strike at the heart of this misconception, with the idea that in a decade or a generation, the impact of anti-corruption society will trickle up and down to those petty police and high representatives.
Integrity Idol events receive wide viewership when shown on television, and even wider listenership when broadcast over the national radio. Additionally, solicitation for Integrity Idol has been consistently high in the 5 years since its foundation, hovering at around 5000 applicants per year. These numbers were sustained even during periods of hardship, such as during reconstruction following the Ebola Crisis. Finally, the Liberian government has backed up its tacit acceptance of the program with visible and high-level attendance at Integrity Idol events. Notably, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joined the award ceremony for the 2017 Idols, and more recently, the nomination of a defense sector employee as a finalist brought public buy-in from the formerly obstinate security agencies.
Despite its successes, the impact of Integrity Idol in Liberia has been observably less positive than in some of the other 5 host countries, such as founding host Nepal. On the program’s ultimate goal of changing public perceptions of corruption, the figures are lacking. Where Integrity Idol Nepal has brought public opinion against endemic corruption to record high levels (80% of survey respondents believe “some public officials work in the interest of the people”), the work in Liberia has struggled to penetrate as deeply (just over 50% of Liberian respondents to the same question). This question, polled in 2018, ignores the respective changes over time, and massive country-level differences, but it does capture at least part of the scope of the problem. Perhaps this reduced penetration is due to Liberian culture and the lasting impacts of conflict; either way, it must be tackled.
For researchers interested in furthering the UN SDGs, it is worth asking whether Integrity Idol is actively contributing to anti-corruption per Goal 16. Measuring corruption is incredibly difficult because much of corruption is based on public perception. With just a quick survey of public opinion or a glance at NGO-collected democratization figures, Liberia appears to be getting worse, despite Accountability Lab’s best efforts. Transparency International releases an annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) that measures perceived public sector corruption based on expert assessment and opinion surveys. In 2011, Liberia scored 51/100 on the CPI, where 0 demarks a highly corrupt society and 100 a very clean one. The country worsened by 10 points in 2012; today, Liberia scores only 31/100. Furthermore, Liberia’s corruption indicators are always contested and disregarded by the public when they do show signs of improvement because people believe they do not represent the views of the average Liberian.
An analysis of country-level trends in Liberia reveals, however, that Integrity Idol might simply have a tougher job in Liberia than in Nepal or other host countries. Under President Sirleaf (2006-2017), the Liberian government instituted a number of anti-corruption and auditing institutions and enacted laws to make corruption harder to carry out. It also instituted other transparency initiatives that have made the public sector more accountable. Compared to the immediate post-war years, Liberia has made progress in decreasing corruption, but with the absolute figures so high, and amidst a number of highly-public scandals, the public struggles to believe in any improvement. Even President Sirleaf noted in her final state of the nation address that she had failed her pledge to make corruption public enemy number one. Given the scale of corruption in Liberia and the vast income differences between public officials and the ordinary citizen, the average Liberian will still remark that corruption has not decreased or will say they do not believe corruption can be eliminated, especially in the public sector.
But these trends are not unique to Liberia. Transparency International notes that of the 180 countries measured for their index, “more than two thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI,” a trend that is “contributing to a crisis in democracy around the world.” Under these conditions, it is worth asking whether Integrity Idol is not stemming the tide of an even worse backslide in Liberia or other countries. Consider the following counterfactuals. Since 2014, a few high-level officials have been charged and brought to court, but the government has lost almost all the cases. Other officials have simply left the country during their trials in an attempt to wait out public outrage. It would appear these perpetrators have escaped justice. But if the deeper goal of Accountability Lab is to make citizens reconsider their views on the ubiquity of corruption, perhaps these are victories: the official has not been convicted, but he has been tried; he has not been caught, but he has been forced to flee the source of his illicit gains. Without Integrity Idol and the anti-corruption measures of President Sirleaf, it is difficult to say whether these officials would have ever stood trial in the court of public opinion.
Integrity Idol has made some significant progress in penetrating national awareness, but the problem of corruption remains intractable due to its deep relationship with years of conflict and hardship. Changing the national culture in Liberia will take time, and each incident of high-level corruption that is exposed will damage public confidence, even as such revelations (and hopefully, prosecutions) demonstrate that other elements of the Liberian justice system are beginning to get their act together. While Integrity Idol itself is not outing and prosecuting highly public, high-level officials who engage in large government scandals, it may be fostering a government or a national culture that is more willing to demand this accountability. The impact of the program, while difficult to measure, is likely wrapped up in microscopic normative changes.
Given a longer time horizon, Integrity Idol’s biggest achievement may actually be its relationship with the national government; without pressure to nominate ethically-compromised candidates, the program is free to build up genuine public confidence in its pool of non-corrupt public figures. As that pool grows each year, and Idol winners return to their communities as current and prior civil servants, they will inspire a new generation of Liberians to ask more from the leaders and accept less in the way of corruption. Maybe some of the idols’ contemporaries will be inspired to give up petty corruption and join the Liberia of the future themselves.
Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.
James Kiawoin is an MPA candidate in Public Affairs studying International Development and Global Health. As a Liberian native, James has seen firsthand the impact of years of war and transitions on citizen confidence in the government. He is available on Twitter (@JEkiawoin).
Sakari Ishetiar is an MPA candidate in Public Affairs studying US policy competition with Russia especially in the Middle East and North Africa. He is interested in how governments communicate their policies to citizens. He is available on Twitter (@ishetiar) and by email (Ishetiar01@gmail.com).