What evidence exists to support the argument that the mobile phone is an effective tool in the fight against corruption?

Re-print of an article written for Spider Newsletter 34, which had a thematic focus on corruptionin recognition of 9 December as the International Anti-Corruption Day.


A year ago, Spider launched the publication Increasing transparency and fighting corruption through ICT in which Spider wished to highlight the potential of ICT as an anti-corruption tool. This year, the number of ICT related initiatives and projects that address corruption (defined in its widest sense) have doubled if not tripled. The most visible development is the use of crowdsourcing methods by civil society organisations, making it possible for citizens to voice their concerns, demand improved service delivery and report corruption. Huduma in Kenya (and soon to be launched in Uganda), UsPeak and Ureport in Uganda, Ramani Tandale project in Tanzania all constitute good examples of the crowdsourcing trend.

Since the ICT/corruption report was launched, Spider has also engaged in the field by supporting a number of projects in East Africa aimed to increase transparency and accountability in public service delivery (see Box 1). In most of these projects the mobile phone constitutes an important component.

Box 1

The ‘SMS for Human Rights’ project by the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG) make it possible for citizens to report human rights violations and bad governance. Similarly, Transparency International Uganda addresses the problem of corruption, absenteeism and inadequate social accountability in the health sector through mobile phones and a free call centre. Another service delivery monitoring project, run by Wougnet, aims to raise awareness on corruption and poor service delivery through ICT (mobile, radio and internet). In the run-up to the 2012 Kenyan national elections, Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHCR) will monitor service delivery at local level and encourage dialogue using social media and mobile phones.The ‘Chanjo’ in Tanzania uses music, social media and mobile phones in innovative ways to tackle corruption, selfishness and laziness. Another project directly targeting corruption is ‘Not Here’ who will develop web and mobile interfaces to rate performance of public servants as well as report and follow up on cases of corruption.

In order to understand the field more, both CIPESA in Uganda and iHub Research in Kenya, have conducted research on the mobile supported interface between government and citizens.

Read more about the projects here and about the ICT4Democracy network here.

These projects rest on the assumption that access to information is a critical enabler for good governance in the sense that if citizens have more (and access to) information about the activities of their government, then empowered citizens will put extra pressure on the government to be more transparent and accountable and public officials will be compelled to perform their jobs more competently. The hypothesis is that the ubiquitous mobile phone and the set up of various hotlines and crowdsourcing platforms facilitate this access to information and therefore play a role in the fight against corruption.

Unfortunately, the literature on this research topic is rather sparse and faces a number of important limitations. There is a growing body of evidence but the ‘evidence’ is uneven and scattered, partly because initiatives are new and impacts unknown. Evidence in one case and context is usually not corroborated by studies in another. Also, integrating systems and scaling up the mobile technologies into existing public administration structures is a complex procedure. Therefore, little research actually exists to support the argument that the mobile phone is an effective tool in the fight against corruption.

Analysing data from Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), suggests that the mere presence of mobile phones does not itself lower the levels of corruption. This contradicts Bailard‘s findings from 2009, which draws CPI and mobile phone penetration data from 46 nations over the period 1999 to 2006. The study claims that the very presence of mobile phones does lower the levels of corruption “by decentralizing information and communication, thereby shrinking the veil of secrecy that shields corrupt behaviour” (Bailard 2009 p. 350). However, in East Africa, despite the exceptional mobile phone growth in the region in the past decade, corruption levels are perceived to have increased in Kenya and Uganda since 1998, while Tanzania has only seen a slight improvement (see Table 1).

Table 1. CPI in three East African countries 1998-2011

Rank2011 Country


2011 2006 2001 1998
100 Tanzania 3.0 2.9 2.2 1.9
143 Uganda 2.4 2.7 1.9 2.6
154 Kenya 2.2 2.2 2.0 2.5

Source: Transparency International 2011

These figures suggest that access to mobiles phones alone is not sufficient. For mobile phones to be an effective anti-corruption tool, they need to be used in more targeted projects. For mobile phones to support feedback mechanisms to monitor corruption, basic data on government’s expenditures and performance must be available. To encourage citizens to continue to send in reports, incentives in the form of relevant feedback need to be built into the system. For citizens to report at all, they need to know about the existing initiative and trust its source and reliability.

One or two mobile facilitated anti-corruption projects will not solve the problem and make the difference. This said we might see a positive change when there are many initiatives and projects working together. The growing army of ‘citizen reporters’ deserve a better and more secure feedback mechanism, mash up maps need to be interlinked, and the open (government) data movement must spread. For this to happen, and for us to be able to answer the title question, organisations like Spider also need to open up: we need be transparent, share our knowledge, network more, and support innovative initiatives in the way we can.


One response to “What evidence exists to support the argument that the mobile phone is an effective tool in the fight against corruption?

  1. Good piece! Can’t agree less although my take is that mobile phones especially in Uganda are mere tools bringing corrupt tendencies to the spotlight of public domain without much leverage to cause goodwill from our leaders to fight the vice!

    Corruption cases are haphazardly carried out or sabotaged politically and once this happens, public courts pass their judgement and what would have been a good cause ends up on the streets as popular dissent–politics.

    If this critical mass could be translated into piling pressure on our leaders, we could get somewhere! But lately, mobile phones–sms–has become more a tool of propaganda done anything else!

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