Beating Back Corruption: Bottom-up Efforts


Portugal is the latest in a line of countries trying to incentivize citizens to fight corruption through… luxury cars. According to the Financial Times, Portugal will hold “lotteries in which 60 ‘top-range cars’ a year will be offered as prizes to consumers who do their civic duty by asking cafés, restaurants, car mechanics, hairdressers and other businesses for receipts that include their personal tax number.” Sales receipts are effectively turned into lottery tickets. This is a creative way of shifting behavior through monetary incentive, but there are other more bottom-up responses to fighting corruption that engage people’s values instead of through carrots and sticks.

For instance, there is the Zero-Rupee Notes initiative, started by 5th Pillar, an Indian anti-corruption organization. The initiative empowers citizens to say “no” to officials asking for a bribe, by equipping them with fake rupee notes that  are virtual replicas of the Indian currency notes, but a zero printed on it and the pledge that ‘I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe.’ Other countries are taking notes, including Malaysia, and learning from this initiative which has already printed half-a-million notes. There are multiple anecdotes of its successful usage, including this one.

Rajesh Chandran, 38, a software developer, told Indian newspaper The National: 

“There were several beds in the train, but the worker did not want to give one to me. He said that he would get me a bed only if I paid a bribe. I gave him a zero-rupee note. I looked at him in his eyes, letting him know that I would not pay the bribe. He looked worried and shamed, and within a few seconds, he gave me a bed.”

The Zero-Rupee helped Chandran hold the worker accountable to a sense of right and wrong. Another creative initiative is the website,, “a site that collects anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid and requests that were expected but not forthcoming,” and which has collected hundreds of thousands of reports since its launch. Citizens, out of their own accord, report officials who asked for bribes as well as instances where they refused bribes. The website has helped Bhaskar Rao, the transport commissioner for the state of Karnataka in Bangalore, to push through reforms in the motor vehicle department which was repeatedly cited by citizens on the site.

According to the NYTimes:

Mr. Rao said he could not have made the changes without I Paid a Bribe. “It was my unofficial spokesman to drive home the message that the public was really upset about this corruption,” Mr. Rao said. “It helped me get my colleagues to fall in line, and it helped me persuade my superiors that we needed to do this.

Here he is speaking to BBC:

“People in the office are realising that if they take money, it definitely is not something just between the giver and the taker. It is spreading out of this room, and now across the globe, on the web…So everybody in the world gets to know that this office is not a good office and institutional pride is hurt.”

Lastly, Delhi’s new state-government has newly launched a citizen hotline which will coach citizens on how to secretly record conversations with bribe-seeking officials in order to gather incriminating evidence. The hotline is backed up by the chief minister’s assurance “that officials demanding or receiving bribes will be arrested within 24 hours of the complainant submitting the first piece of recorded evidence.” It has already received thousands of calls. 

Both ipaidabribe, Delhi’s hotline and Zero-Rupee are fighting corruption through bottom-up initiatives that tap into the moral values of citizens, focusing particularly on shaming those who do not act ethically. Ben Elers, program director for Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization, sums up the current trends in fighting corruption:

“In the past, we tended to view corruption as this huge, monolithic problem that ordinary people couldn’t do anything about,” Mr. Elers said. “Now, people have new tools to identify it and demand change.”

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