Foreign Policy Blogs

Handheld Anti-corruption

Mobile phones have already transformed life in developing countries. They have brought phone service to remote areas that had little hope of ever seeing landlines. They have also had major economic benefits for so-called micro-entrepreneurs, helping them with everything from establishing mobile barbershops to determining the best time to bring goods to market. And now they are trying to fight corruption.

Apple has launched an app, called “Antimordidas” or “Antibribes”, to help users fend off corruption in Mexico City. The app has various features such as a calculator for verifying traffic fines and a user-friendly compendium of traffic regulations. It is soon to be launched for Blackberry as well. Given the interest that this story has garnered in other countries, especially India (where most versions of the story do not specify that the app is only available for Mexico), apps for other locations should not be far behind.

It is always encouraging when new technology is used to combat ancient problems. However, it is unfortunate that the app is limited to smartphones. Corruption hurts most for the people who can least afford it – who happen also to be the people who can least afford smartphones. The Economist has predicted that within five years everyone on earth who wants a cell phone may have one, but smartphones will remain luxury items (except in New York, where people seem to think they are a fundamental need).

Shouldn’t it be possible to fight corruption with a traditional mobile phone? You don’t need fancy apps, just a number to call to report abuse anonymously (which does exist in some locations). An information line is also handy, where callers (or better yet, texters) can find out similar facts as those displayed on Mexican iPhones. Further innovation from handset manufacturers would be welcome. As a social program, they could support a designated mailbox for subsidized SMSs detailing shoddy infrastructure projects or dishonest service providers. Allowing photos to be sent for free would be better still.

There is space for much more innovation in smartphone anti-corruption technology as well. A good start would be a streamlined app for reporting bribery, with automatic submission of time, date, and location: for government agencies and some service providers, no further information would be necessary to discern trends and determine which offices require management intervention.