Empowering citizens to fight corruption

January 8, 2015 wmarked a turning point in the course of the Sri Lanka’s political history. A powerful President who was held in high regard for defeating the LTTE was rejected by the public at large. They instead placed their faith in the hands of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena.   

The catchy slogan “Good Governance” which he put forward came into public acceptance. The people trusted that a “change” will happen for a corrupt-free country. Yet, just seven weeks after the President’s inauguration, the worst financial scam in independent Sri Lanka’s history took place. The then Governor of the Central Bank steered a Bond Auction to favour his son-in-law.   

In the same year, Global Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014 released by Transparency International, ranked Sri Lanka in the 83rd position among 168 countries. Just four years thereafter, in 2018, Sri Lanka came down in the ranking to 89th position in the world and behind Bhutan and India. The statistics revealed that Sri Lanka miserably failed to significantly control corruption in the four years of their governance, thus contributing to a financial crisis in the country.   

Speaking on Sri Lanka’s performance, the organization’s Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere said, “It is important to note that the CPI deals with perceived levels of public sector corruption and as such the existence of a legislative framework, without the will or operational ability to ensure timely justice, reflects on Sri Lanka’s clear lack of progress to date”.   


Corruption is the misuse of power. There is a general consensus on this simple definition among ordinary citizens. They believe that some people in public office at all levels misuse their positions to gain personal benefits or to serve a few individuals rather than the whole of society. Then the obvious question crops up: When there are enough or more laws and statutes that are supposed to prevent the misuse of public office for personal gain, how can this happen?   

Therein lies the problem. The double standards and inconsistencies in many laws provide public officials with loopholes to escape legal liability. This, in turn, creates a culture of tolerance for corruption among ordinary citizens, as a way of ensuring needs are met, be it by illicit means or otherwise.   

Among the most common causes of corruption are the political and economic environment, professional ethics and morality and of course, habits and customs. Unfortunately, there also does not exist an unambiguous answer as to how to deal with corruption. Something that works in one country or in one region will not necessarily be successful in another. This piece of writing touches the subject of empowering citizens to fight corruption – a modern proven way of minimizing corruption.   


In re-thinking approaches to fighting corruption, we must focus at the local level where the impact is most directly felt by the citizen - - be it the funds destined for improved hospitals disappearing or services not being delivered. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) can work to help ordinary citizens take advantage of the Freedom of Information Act, which dictates that any person may access or request information in any written form that is in the possession of any public official, agency, or institution.   

If properly used, it could be a powerful tool for accountability, enabling citizens to shine a light on the often-mysterious activities of government. However, most of the general population remains unaware of the law’s existence or is unsure about how to make a request.   

The CIABOC can address this in several ways. First, they can spread awareness of the Act and teach ordinary people how to use it, especially to access information about health, education, and water services from Local and State authorities. Second, the CIABOC can provide free and confidential legal advice to citizens who report having witnessed or experienced corruption in their Local or State government. Finally, the CIABOC can work with those who are reporting corruption to help them to make formal complaints to anti-corruption bodies and the police, and where necessary, litigate if public agencies refuse to honor their responsibilities under the Act.   

Fortunatly, for the country, the public’s determination to address corruption in Sri Lanka is high, but how to do so remains a puzzle, especially when government agencies are not responsive. De-mystifying the “how-to” and undertaking targeted efforts at building accountability at the point where it matters most to ordinary citizens is important if we are to avoid fatigue and lethargy in the fight against corruption.   

Civil Society Organizations

This is where Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) come in where they can streamline “citizen engagement” in all steps and stages. Ordinary citizens should all have a way of providing input to the process. Their opinions should not only be listened to, but also respected and acted upon.   

The main challenge here is how to engage citizens. In this regard, the CSOs can represent and advocate for ordinary citizens and ensure their voices are well heard and respected. However, since there are thousands of CSOs in Sri Lanka, it may be difficult to hear them, as they do not speak with a coherent voice. The media could play an important role by shedding light on the efforts of civil society and ensuring that citizens’ voices are heard and responded to.   

It is very important to educate, engage and mobilize the youth in the fight against corruption. They are more likely to become actively involved and have the most at stake. 

Fighting corruption is a multifaceted and complicated process requiring synergy among all sectors.    

Social networking   

Social media eliminates several obstacles faced in the fight against corruption and has many unique advantages. Social media allows anyone to speak up about his or her concerns and access information on corruption. Attention can be raised using blogs, petitions, videos, etc., all of which can be anonymous, although in today’s day and age it is much easier to trace uploaded videos, posts, etc.   

Some of the key benefits of social media are that it disrupts systems of corruption, strengthens citizen participation, strengthens campaign organization and capacity, wins people over, and weakens sources of support and control for unaccountable and corrupt power holders.   

Nigerian experience

One classic experience we can follow in handling corruption is from Nigeria. In Nigeria, Citizen Anti-Corruption Volunteer Corps (CACVC) is a leading organization in the movement against corruption to fight corruption. It’s a non-political organization. The CACVC maintains a strong grassroots focus, aiming to catalyze and strengthen anti-corruption participatory social movements from local platforms.   

One of the successful ways that CACVC has engaged with communities is through appointing community leaders as Advocates of Good Governance. It engages with citizens to both bolster communities’ efforts to eradicate and prevent corruption and provide citizens with anti-corruption information and advice and responds to corruption concerns raised by the community and undertake collective monitoring activities. It also publicly reports on corruption problems and evidence of corruption obtained from monitoring exercises.   

Its members are volunteers and come from a variety of professional groups including teachers, lawyers, journalists, physicians, business people, NGO workers, retired government officials, public representatives and community activists.   


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