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The role of citizens in fighting corruption


Citizen participation is not a new concept, although it has gained traction in the past few decades. As stressed by the National Democratic Institute (a United States-based CSO), citizens have "the right to participate in decisions that affect public welfare" and such "participation is an instrumental driver of democratic and socio-economic change, and a fundamental way to empower citizens". Citizen participation has also been described as "a process which provides private individuals an opportunity to influence public decisions and has long been a component of the democratic decision-making process" (Cogan and Sharpe, 1986, p. 283). Citizen participation is classified as direct or indirect, with direct citizen participation being regarded as "the process by which members of a society share power with public officials in making substantive decisions related to the community" (Roberts, 2008, p. 5). There are even international treaties that highlight the importance of citizen participation, such as the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

The discourse on citizen participation has traditionally focused on participation in democratic decision-making, and there are different ways in which citizen participation is operationalized in democratic processes. This can be through bottom-up measures, such as voting, grass-roots organization and participation, or through top-down mechanisms spurred by organizations such as the Open Government Partnership (discussed in Module 4 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption). Innes and Booher (2004) have identified five grounds for upholding citizen participation in public decision-making: 1) to include public preferences in decision-making; 2) to improve decisions by incorporating citizens' local knowledge; 3) to promote fairness and justice, and hear marginalized voices; 4) to legitimize public decisions; and 5) to fulfil the requirements of the law.

Citizen participation in relation to anti-corruption efforts encompasses dynamics and approaches that may differ from citizen participation in other public processes, given that the State may not always provide citizens the same access to space and information in relation to fighting corruption. Corruption bypasses democratic mechanisms to the extent that Mark Warren (2004) has defined corruption as a violation of democratic inclusion. Corruption bypasses the laws and rules that were democratically established and excludes those who do not participate in corrupt exchanges (e.g. services that are meant to be public are allocated to those who bribe or on the basis of clientelism). For this reason, the role of citizens is better understood in terms of social accountability, where the citizens oppose corruption by keeping it in check, critically assessing the conduct and decisions of office holders, reporting corruption misdoings and crimes, and asking for appropriate countermeasures.

Concrete ways in which individual citizens may contribute to the fight against corruption include reporting on corruption to the authority or through the media, and supporting training programmes and sensitization campaigns that aim to create a culture of integrity and zero tolerance for corruption. Sometimes even refusing to participate in corrupt practices is an important act of resistance. It is worthwhile dedicating a few lines to the issue of reporting on corruption, as this is one important avenue through which individual citizens can participate in anti-corruption efforts. As technology has advanced, new methods of citizen reporting have become available. Most anti-corruption agencies now allow reports to be made online. In many countries, smartphone applications are enabling citizens to easily report incidents of corruption. In 2012, the World Bank released its own Integrity App. This app allows users to make confidential reports of fraud and corruption in World Bank projects. It also provides links to the outcomes of investigations. Another approach to reporting corruption outside official channels is through the use of crowdsourcing and social media. In India, for example, Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan created the online platform called " I Paid a Bribe" to expose everyday corruption by allowing people to post their stories anonymously (Strom, 2012). The website has not only served to document corruption, but also to increase awareness among the public. Another example is Digiwhist, a web portal and mobile app technology launched in Europe for the "systematic collection, structuring, analysis, and broad dissemination of information on public procurement and on mechanisms that increase accountability of public officials in all EU and some neighbouring countries". Using the transparency and public accountability of open access, Digiwhist focuses on assessing fiscal transparency, risk assessment and impact of good governance policies.  

In many countries around the world, there is a concrete risk of the normalization of corruption and the decline of public criticism of manifestations of corruption. In an ironic twist, corruption ends up being considered a necessary evil or even a shortcut to access some important goods. In such contexts, the critical attitude of citizens toward corruption is weakened or altogether lost. In other cases, high levels of corruption, citizen frustration with public sector corruption and poor governance (which often corresponds to high levels of corruption) may lead to citizen apathy, a lack of civic engagement and a lack of trust in the political and democratic process. Apathy and indifference are dangerous because where citizens fail to hold public officials accountable, corruption spreads even further, together with impunity for corrupt conduct (Olsson, 2014).

Citizen apathy or a lack of civic engagement may be addressed by empowering citizens and by introducing innovative approaches to citizen participation (McCormack and Doran, 2014). For example, the NGO Transparency International launched an anti-corruption tool called the Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) aimed at enhancing awareness of corruption and its negative consequences, and at facilitating the reporting of corruption. It started with three initial ALACs in Romania, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later established more than 60 centres on all continents. These centres provide victims and witnesses of corruption with practical assistance to pursue complaints and address their grievances. Through providing this support, the centres make it possible for citizens to denounce corruption and participate in anti-corruption efforts.

It is crucial that in all countries, citizens are able to recognize corruption and are empowered to participate, so as to avoid the consequences of unabated corruption, such as deep inequalities (Uslaner, 2008), increased levels of private dishonesty (Gachter and Schulz, 2016), the demoralization of the public (Ariely and Uslaner, 2017), instability and even violent extremism (Chayes, 2015). For a further discussion of the adverse effects of corruption, see Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Where citizens and public officials pursue, use and exchange wealth and power in the absence of appropriate accountability mechanisms, it is common to witness the establishment of what Michael Johnston (2005) called the syndromes of corruption: influence markets, elite cartels, oligarchs and clans, and official moguls. For a further discussion of these syndromes, see Module 2 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

One should be aware, however, of the possible instrumentalization of citizens' anti-corruption attitudes. Transparency International observers remarked, for example, that corruption is an important element of populist rhetoric. Populist leaders tend to use public outrage for corrupt behaviour to punish political adversaries. Populist movements present themselves as an anti-corruption force drawing on the idea that corrupt elites work against the interest of the people. In many cases, however, such movements are not accompanied by an actual anti-corruption strategy and even facilitate new forms of corruption (Transparency International, 2019). For a further discussion on this topic, see Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption. 

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