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Civil Society Participation

As stakeholders in good governance and institutions mediating between the state and the public, the organizations that comprise “civil society” – citizen groups, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, business associations, think tanks, academia, religious organizations and last but not least media – can have an important role to play in constraining corruption.  This is true at the country level as well as internationally. Civil Society Organizations (CSO), with Transparency International spearheading the fight against corruption, is the most prominent example of what an international civil society organization can achieve in awareness-raising, pressuring governments as well as international organizations for change and working with various sectors to implement innovative anticorruption reforms. 

Civil society as a third sector in a new governance structure can play a vital role in limiting corruption but they also have their limits: without being elected democratically they lack formal legitimacy of political parties as well as accountability measures – a potential entry point for various civil society groups with questionable motives.  A high degree of public scrutiny is thus important to hold civil society groups to the same accountability standards as people in public office or private companies.

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Civil Society’s Role in Fighting Corruption 

Since most cases of corruption involve pubic officials and private companies, Civil society as an independent actor representing the interests of the general public is uniquely positioned to investigate and bring to light cases of corruption.  This is achieved through various functions:

(a) Creating public awareness about corruption

Country surveys on corruption, service delivery surveys, and diagnostic assessments are ways in which organizations can raise awareness of policy-makers and the general public.  The  People’s Voice Program in Ukraine, the Bangalore Report Card as well as the Philippines’ Report Card on Pro-Poor Services approach are innovative ways through which the voice of the public could be brought to the ear of policy-makers, affecting improvements in service delivery and reduced levels of corruption. 

(b) Formulating and promoting action plans to fight corruption

Seminars, conferences, and workshops are effective ways of publicizing information about the patterns and severity of corruption, building coalitions amongst anticorruption champions across sectors and developing action plans.  These include attempts to influence new legislation that will aid corruption control or to lobby for new institutional devices to prevent or penalize corruption.  Advocacy for legal and judicial reform, freedom of information, business deregulation, privatization, and procurement reform are common themes of civil society interventions.

(c) Monitoring governments’ actions and decisions in an effort to reduce corruption. Examples of CSO monitoring include but are not limited to privatization plans, procurement reforms, allocation of housing, public expenditure tracking, election monitoring and legal reforms. 

Civil Society Monitoring of 2000 Elections in Zimbabwe 

The Zimbabwe 2000 general elections were historic for a number of reasons. The country recorded its highest ever electoral turn-out: despite the human rights atrocities committed in Mugabe's name against suspected MDC members and other critical voices. 30,000 monitors were successfully trained. Over 53,000 Zimbabweans took part in 500 voter education workshops, seminars and conferences held between November 1999 and June 2000. 

Despite determined high level government attempts to obstruct the monitoring process by means of mendacious emergency legislation, monitors managed to ensure that no blatant and obvious acts of electoral fraud occurred. This meant the creation of a strong and credible opposition to Mugabe's Zanu PF party. The MDC, created only nine months earlier, secured 57 parliamentary seats to Zanu PF's 62 (both parties accepted the outcome of the parliamentary election results). The most significant achievement of the tool was the irrevocable proof that civil society militation for democratic change can work. The unity of purpose of the ZESN and the Zimbabwean people was instrumental in reducing incidents of electoral fraud, malpractice and manipulation. In August 2001, ZESN organised the largest ever conference on governance in Zimbabwe, with national and international participants coming together to devise courses of action to address the Zimbabwean crisis.

Source:   Transparency International Corruption Fighter’s Tool Kit.

The Role of the Media

A free and open media help expose levels of corruption by uncovering and shedding light on abuses.  In transition economies in Eastern and Central Europe, greater openness felt by the media since the fall of communism has brought with it a plethora of stories of fraud, corruption, and criminal activity, making the media perhaps the most persistent institution in the fight against corruption.  Journalists have paid dearly for this: in the territory of the former Soviet Union alone, more than 200 journalists have been killed in the line of work as they investigated stories on corrupt officials or criminal gangs.[i]Three out of four recipients of   Transparency International’s Integrity Awards 2001 had to deal with harsh consequences for speaking up about corruption including imprisonment and murder.  An investigative journalist had his newspaper banned in Sri Lank after exposing corruption cases.  Not surprisingly, in a repressive environment where the government is imposing strict censorship on the media journalists apply strong self-censorship to protect their jobs and sometimes even lives. Many more factors continue to weaken the media’s potentially powerful contribution to limiting corruption, including: lingering state controls, conflicts of interest generated by ownership arrangements, and corruption in the media itself.  In Indonesia, “envelop journalism” became to describe the custom of journalists who would accept bribes in return for taking up certain stories and writing them to convey messages favorable to the bribe-supplier.   

But the press may yet be inhibited in other ways, most notably by libel laws and intimidation.  Freedom of information laws vary considerably across countries. (Krishnan. 2001) In Turkmenistan, for example, the media are expressly forbidden by law from publishing any sort of criticism against another person or institution except criticism issued by the president himself. (McCormack. 1999) look at map of media freedom 

The internet provides unprecedented opportunities of disseminating knowledge and increasing transparency across national borders in a timely fashion at low cost. 

Visit the  e*government website for cases on how the Internet can help in enhancing access to information and increase transparency. Cases range from online delivery of land titles in India to customs reform in the Philippines.

Empowering Civil Society 

For Civil society to realize its full potential it requires an appropriate legal and regulatory framework, including basic human rights such as the freedom of expression, association and the freedom to establish nongovernmental entities.  Requirements for registering should be reasonable and not constitute a serious hindrance in setting up a new CSO.

In addition to the necessary breathing space, CSOs must further have the opportunity to mobilize funding.  Tax exemption for donations is one way in which a government may choose to support Civil society.  Thirdly, the effectiveness of CSOs is a function of access to information and knowledge as well as the ability to attract talent.  Capacity constraints such as a lack of well-educated and highly motivated people can severely compromise the positive role Civil society can play in combating corruption.

A Word of Caution: Accountability and Legitimacy Issues 

CSOs are not democratically elected.  It should be in the interest of CSO to adhere to high standards of accountability, transparency and democratic management structures. The increasing availability of donor funding for CSO reflects the increased importance, capabilities and professionalism of CSO but it can also set wrong incentives. Some CSO are founded to attract donor funding for the personal benefit of founders and staff.  It would further be naïve to assume that CSOs are immune to corruption.  If co-opted by businesses or powerful elites they can be part of the problem, too.

The public as well as donors should apply scrutiny in funding and working with CSOs.  A strong track record and transparent business practices are usually good indicators of serious commitment and trustworthiness.


[1]This is in part based on World Bank. 2000.  Anticorruption in Transition. A Contribution to the Policy Debate. Washington, D.C., pp. 44-47.

[i] The Glasnost Defense Foundationmaintains a Memorial Book containing the names of 209 news people who lost their lives performing their professional duties. Cited in Nelson, et al (1999).