August 23, 2011
Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
Corruption is a huge problem in developing countries. No one wants to invest in a place where all the civil servants, contractors, and vendors are crooks. And without economic investment, you can’t solve most other problems. So I wonder if an app can fix all of that.
I’m assuming that even undeveloped regions have, or someday will have, enough smartphones and Internet access to make this plan work. You don’t need full Internet penetration for this idea to work, so long as most people in the local business class have access to someone who has access to the Internet.
The idea is to develop an app for tracking and identifying corruption anywhere in society. It would be sort of like Yelp for corruption. If you get screwed by someone, you record it in your app, it registers on the Internet, and the rest of the world can see. In time, this would drive out the worst offenders and create transparency for the rest. And transparency might be almost as good as getting rid of a corrupt official. For example, if you can’t get rid of an official who demands bribes for issuing building permits, it still helps to know how much the bribe will cost and if it will get the result you need. Whenever you remove uncertainty, business is better off.
There are many problems with my plan. At the top of the list is the risk that people will game the system the way small businesses try to game Yelp, by leaving fake reviews. People could use the anti-corruption app to settle scores and to defame competitors. But I think the system still comes out way ahead even if you allow for a healthy dollop of abuse. If there’s only one civil servant handling a specific function in a town, and he has a thousand bad reviews but also 100 glowing reviews, people will realize the glowing reviews are fakes.
In time, an observer could get a good sense of which regions are sufficiently corruption-free for investment. That creates more incentive for the corrupt regions to police themselves. Once you have a clear correlation between corruption trends and investment, citizens will tolerate far less corruption in their midst.
Would it work?
[Update: The websites mentioned in the comments as being similar to this idea aren’t organized in a way that can make a difference. They are mostly ramdom anecdotes about unnamed people. – Scott]