Sarah Logan is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.
Did you know there is a Moresby street in Cairns? Pundits have long joked that it indicates the importance of illicit PNG money to the Cairns property market, with some claiming that Papua New Guineans are the city's most important property investors.
PNG's Sharp Talk forum is hosting a fierce debate about the amount of Australian property owned by prominent PNG political figures. In a country where about 40% of the population lives in poverty, real estate purchases in Queensland by politicians and senior public servants is fueling an increasingly furious online discussion. But despite their anger, without political will and institutional reform there seems very little PNG citizens can do about the potential misuse of funds.
As the Lowy Institute's recent Digital Islands paper shows, one of the biggest claims for the impact of social media (and the internet generally) on governance issues is its facilitation of transparency. Websites like India's ipaidabribe.com, for example, allow citizens to report incidences of corruption and have had some success in bringing small-scale corrupt officials to notice, if not necessarily justice.
Kenya's budget tracking tool examines the allocation of the Constituencies Development Fund, which the members of the parliament use to invest in their constituencies. The public response to the tool has been overwhelming. The website receives more than 5700 hits and 4000-4500 SMS messages per month. Cases have been uncovered where funds that existed on paper did not translate into expenditures, in some cases leading to the resignation of officers in charge of those projects.
The closest thing to an anti-corruption reporting website in PNG is fixmyroad.com, where users can upload pictures and reports of roads needing repair and alert other road users to problems. Unfortunately, the website has had only 35 reports since it was begun in 2009, not really surprising given PNG's still limited (although growing) internet penetration. However, even the Indian and Kenyan examples have had little measurable success in changing corrupt practices at the state level.
This isn't to say that the excitement around online transparency initiatives is simply hype. There are few long-term studies, but that is probably because the technology is so new that the data is simply not available, and also because the structures surrounding corruption are so complex that transparency initiative will only ever be part of a larger puzzle.
One long-term study does find a link between mobile phone ownership and reduction in perceptions of corruption, suggesting that decentralised networks facilitated by mobile phones can reduce opportunities to engage in corruption and increase the risk of detection (although not everyone agrees). Others find that simply increasing citizen engagement — for example, by participating in communal discussions about corruption — can engender greater participation in governance, with developmental benefits.
Perhaps major changes in corruption aren't the end goal, but just try posting that on Sharp Talk.
Photo by Flickr user Jorge Lascar.