Fighting corruption is best done when people work together from the bottom up, writes Mohamed El Dahshan of Harvard University.

In the 1990s, Uganda suffered from a problem of corruption so severe that, for every 100 dollars the government would disburse to schools across the country, only 20 would reach the destination; 80 dollars would somehow disappear, siphoned along the way. So, the Ministry of Finance decided to try a novel approach: it informed the local media, and placed posters in schools detailing the sums to be released. This time, 90% of the money reached its destination.

There are two main lessons here. One, that the problem was not resolved by a top-down decision to outlaw the practice, but really by informing, thus empowering citizens. And two, that this could have gone unresolved if it weren’t for a courageous senior government official, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, who decided to face the problem, risking a political scandal for disclosing corruption, rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Making transparency work for development, particularly in the developing world, will not come from signing such agreements as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, or the WTO’s Agreement on Government Procurement. It will come from empowering citizens: informing the greater public of its rights and duties and those of the public servants, and disclosing government documents and proceedings to allow for public oversight.

There is a shorthand term for this: Open Government.

Open Government initiatives are not the exclusive domain of developed countries – in fact, some of the most interesting come from the global South. Take the charter of the Tunisian OpenGov initiative, which defines its goal as being to “push for full transparency and citizen participation in the management of public affairs, in order to guarantee the right to a fair, democratic and prosperous society”. It is a citizen initiative that has attracted the support of a number of members of the Constitutional Assembly, and has launched a series of public campaigns and initiatives already changing the public perception vis-à-vis transparency.

Achieving such a vision will allow for a larger popular base, including specialized bodies that will emerge, to better scrutinize the work of the state, praising or criticizing, but ultimately contributing solutions and ideas. It will also allow the government itself to spot its own weak links – which departments are hampering the work of others.

Achieving such a vision, however, will not come easily. Not every country has its Tumusiime-Mutebile, and many civil servants benefit from the opacity of government transactions. Some are trying to legalize this opacity – in my home country, Egypt, for instance, the government has recently forcibly passed a constitution which allows the president to appoint the heads of supervisory and regulatory agencies, thereby undermining their very raison d’être by keeping them beholden to the executive they should supervise.

If we are to support transparency for development around the world, we need to foster an environment in which people understand their role as citizens supervising the government, as well as understand the information they will have access to and learn how to sort it. Only then will we be able to rein in corruption and pressure governments into improving the living conditions of the people – not a small subset thereof.

 Author: Mohamed El Dahshan is Senior Research Fellow Center for International Development at Harvard University. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos.

Image: Shadow of a businessman crossing a street REUTERS/Daniel Munoz