Empowering Citizens to Fight Corruption

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 to Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Conversation type: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining Shaazka Beyerle and the New Tactics online community for this dialogue on Empowering Citizens to Fight Corruption. This dialogue explored how campaigns have empowered and mobilized citizens to counter corruption in their communities. Citizens working together are gaining powerful results. This is a space to learn about and share experiences in these kinds of campaigns as well as share your ideas, resources, and stories.

Though not widely known, over the past 10 years there has been a grass-roots, bottom-up "eruption against corruption" to borrow a popular slogan from the Fifth Pillar movement in India. Citizens can and are fighting to curb corruption in their communities and countries. They are organizing and strategically using nonviolent actions such as: civil disobedience; petitions; vigils; marches; sit-ins; Right to Information laws, demanding information; monitoring/auditing of authorities, budgets, spending and services; social networking and blogging; coordinated low-risk mass actions; creation of parallel or independent institutions; social and economic empowerment initiatives; street theatre; songs; humor; and public pledges.  


Why is it important to empower citizens to fight corruption?

It is ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of corruption, have direct experience of it, and suffer from it.  However, they also have power and can use it to fight corruption.

There are two main approaches to fighting corruption: the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach.  The top-down approach has to do with developing and naturalizing new rules, institutions, and norms that target the “public administrative graft.”  The primary weakness of this approach, however, is that the very institutions accused of corruption are responsible for enacting change.   Those benefiting from corruption are much less likely to end it than those suffering from corruption.  That is why this dialogue emphasizes the importance of the bottom-up, or grassroots, approach, which requires the mobilization of ordinary citizens.  A large, united public outcry provides the force of change that reformed infrastructure alone can’t.

There are multiple ways in which civilians can apply pressure to the higher-ups.  The main way to do this is by exerting their civic power and utilizing civil resistance and nonviolent tactics.  (For definitions of these terms, click here.)

A key part of the process of empowerment is education.  Citizens who are better informed of the corruption within their political systems are able to fight corruption more effectively as well as develop their own strategies to do so.  It is also extremely important to educate people about their rights, especially those who have limited access to such information, such as those living in remoteness and poverty.  These groups are easier to take advantage of, and are therefore common targets of corruption.

How have citizens organized, mobilized, and impacted corruption?

It is very important to educate and mobilize youth in the fight against corruption.  They are more likely to become actively involved and have the most at stake.  There are many successful examples of both youth and adults mobilized against corruption around the world, from the Philippines to Kazakhstan.  This dialogue includes an extensive list of citizen-lead campaigns against corruption and the tactics utilized during these campaigns. 

Nonviolent tactics such as citizen report cards, information booths, information gathering, etc. are important because they can mobilize the dynamics of civil resistance by strengthening citizen participation, disrupting systems of corruption, weakening sources of support and control for corrupt office holders, and winning people over to the civic campaign.  (Click here for more details.)

Both legal action and media attention are effective, especially when combined, as demonstrated by a group of protesters in Egypt.  In that case, legal action was taken prior to the abuse to deter its occurrence, however legal action can also be taken after the abuse has already occurred.  Transparency International has set up Advocacy and Legal Advice Centers around the world where victims of corruption can seek legal help.  

What are the challenges and risks faced by civic initiatives?

While people tend to think of corruption as starting at the top and trickling down through the system, they must be aware that it really all starts with the small bribe they pay to a government employee.  The focus is often on “big corruption”, but this is supported by smaller forms of corruption. 

The key reasons that citizens opt not to participate in anti-corruption movements are fear of reprisal and uncertainty of how to engage.  Very few people file official complaints because they are either afraid of being punished or think they will be ignored.  

International solidarity and public support are crucial in protecting those who take a stand against corruption.  

Oppressors have strategic goals in using repression, however repression can also backfire on the oppressors and provide fuel to strengthen an anti-corruption campaign.  

Many people express feelings of hopelessness, especially since many NGOs that are supposed to help suffer from internal corruption themselves.  These feelings of skepticism and helplessness are the anti-corruption movement’s greatest obstacles.  

However, this only emphasizes the importance of taking a stand.  The greater the number of people who speak up, the more likely it is that change will occur.  Finding allies is crucial, though-- no single person can take on corruption alone.  It helps to have some sort of political ally, such as a politician who will champion the cause and can work in an arena that others may find difficult to access.

Some additional challenges in the fight against corruption are as follows:

  • It is often difficult to locate and target the root of the problem, the “masterminds” behind the corruption.  Often small-time crimes perpetrated by minor officials are targeted while the leaders remain untouched.
  • Defective laws are an obstacle, and may provide impunity for those responsible for corruption.
  • Corrupt officials may work together to hide the extent to which they have abused their station.  The real amount of money misallocated may never be discovered.
  • Often the successful completion of projects are announced when in reality the projects have been stalled--this is another form of corruption, as the money meant for these projects is often misallocated by corrupt officials.  

Are there international dimensions to civic campaigns?

An example of a civic campaign with international dimensions is the “Ask Your Government” campaign, which gathers governmental budget information from 84 countries and gives citizens access to this information.  By tracking how public funds are used, citizens and organizations can spot corruption. 

This is a great way to hold the government accountable and involve more people with the anti-corruption campaign.  New Tactics hosted a separate dialogue on this and has published related tactics.

The United Nations has a Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC).  While this is not a civic campaign, it certainly lends international authority to more local efforts. 

Use of the Internet is another way in which campaigns can go international.  For example, Avaaz.org created an online petition to draw attention to the Ficha Limpa campaign, which targets corrupt officials in Brazil and holds them accountable.  These efforts helped to get a bill through Congress that is now the reason for the potential disqualification of over 330 candidates for political office in the upcoming elections.  

It is important to bear in mind, though, that while online tools are useful in promotion and sharing information, projects that engage with established civil society groups are more likely to succeed in the long run.

What is the role of social networking and digital technologies?

Social media eliminates several obstacles faced in the fight against corruption and has many unique advantages. Social media allows anyone to speak up about his or her concerns and access information on corruption. Attention can be raised using blogs, petitions, video, etc., all of which can be anonymous, although in today’s day and age it is much easier to trace uploaded videos, posts, etc.  The tactical dialogue “Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders” suggests one way to deal with this problem. 

Some of the key benefits of social media are that it disrupts systems of corruption, strengthens citizen participation, strengthens campaign organization and capacity, wins people over, and weakens sources of support and control for unaccountable and corrupt power holders.  

Social media can especially helpful under restrictive regimes, when physically meeting is difficult.

Resources and tools: A wealth of practical examples of civic campaigns and tactics to fight corruption are given throughout this dialogue.  In the final section, people also share other resources to aid those who wish to participate in the anti-corruption movement. 

Conversation Leaders

shaazka's picture
Shaazka Beyerle
International Center on Nonviolent Conflict
Engi's picture
Engi El Haddad
Egyptians Against Corruption
Georg Neumann's picture
Georg Neumann
Transparency International
Shobila's picture
Shobila Kali
5th Pillar
hmasud's picture
HARIKA MASUD
International Budget Partnership
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by belmeouchi
Thu, 12/20/2012 - 3:56pm