Oliver Kuson is an assistant district education officer in Liberia's remote Barrobo district in Maryland county-, close to the border with Cote D'Ivoire. He travels daily by foot to schools throughout the district to keep track of student and teacher attendance and talk to children and their families about the importance of education. The conditions in the schools are so bad that children share notebooks and study in mud huts without toilets or electricity. Oliver has decision-making power and sees corruption every day -- but is not interested in participating despite his circumstances: "I haven't been paid since 2009 for the work I do...but I love this community, I love my people, I love the people of Liberia. So I'm still in the field, regardless of whether I'm on pay or not."
Aid organizations often talk about corruption and the challenges it presents in countries like Liberia. Rightly so- a recent report by Transparency International noted that Liberians pay more bribes than any other citizens in Africa. This is an important conversation because corruption leads directly to poverty, inequality and violence. When funds meant for schools go missing, children cannot learn; and as we saw during the Ebola crisis in Liberia -- when hospitals do not receive the support they are allocated, people die. Recent estimates by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate that corruption costs an incredible $2.6 trillion a year. That is more than 17 times the amount of international aid provided to developing countries around the world annually.
The issue with the conversation around corruption is that it is negative -- it focuses on the problem, not the solution. It highlights the wrong-doers not do-gooders. And it reinforces helplessness not hopefulness through adding to the sense that corruption is insurmountable. This discussion tends to leave out the heroes who demonstrate incredible integrity, even in the face of conditions and incentives that perpetuate systemic graft.
This raises the question: Why don't we find, celebrate and work with people like Oliver? Instead of "naming and shaming" perpetrators of corruption, why don't we "name and fame" the propagators of integrity? This can be a starting point for understanding how they do what they do, and extracting lessons that might be learned to improve accountability everywhere. It also creates a positive narrative that people can really believe in- and gives a sense that realities can change.
Last week we launched Integrity Idol Liberia to do just that. Integrity Idol began in Nepal last year, where tens of thousands of Nepalis voted for another district education official- Gyan Mani Nepal- as their Integrity Idol. The campaign created incredible impetus for reform because it engaged people in a constructive way- allowing Gyan Mani to redouble his efforts to improve the education sector. It has begun to impact the larger system too- afterwards, he was invited to Washington, DC to brief Congressman on how to reform US foreign aid, a process that is now underway.
We are doing the same in Liberia- and it is working. We asked Liberians all over the country to nominate honest government officials, and we received over 1,400 nominations from every corner of the country. With the help of an independent, expert panel, we narrowed this field down to the top five and made incredible films about all of them. These episodes were played last week across Liberian TV stations (and the audio versions on radio), and Liberians voted in droves for their Integrity Idol.
Oliver is just one of them- the finalists also included Comfort Nimley, a caretaker at the Ministry of Internal Affairs office in remote Grand Kru County who is also a founding board member of the county's only bank; and Jugbeh Kekula a nurse in the emergency room at the Liberia Government Hospital in Grand Bassa County- who also volunteers to provide birth control and family planning information. Jugbeh was on the frontlines during the Ebola crisis, caring for her fellow Liberians with incredible dedication in the most difficult of conditions. After thousands of votes came in, it was Jugbeh who beat out Oliver, Comfort and others for the title of Integrity Idol and the prize- in Liberian tradition- of a live chicken.
Integrity Idol has tapped into the frustration around corruption in Liberia and channeled it towards positive thought and action. The finalists themselves have already committed to building a network of hundreds of young people in their districts who can act as integrity champions going forwards. Over time, we hope a network like this can shift behaviors and build the trust that is essential for functioning, accountable government. A Jugbeh herself told us after her win: "This is the greatest honour and it will help me do my job even better than before. We should always do the right thing- we may not always be appreciated, but if we work together we will all be rewarded for our integrity".
Watch all the Integrity Idol Liberia videos here.