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App Aims To Track Engrained Corruption In Lebanon


Let's move on to a different kind of danger: corruption - kickbacks, graft, cash stuffed in brown envelopes. Whatever you call it, corruption eats at civil society around the globe. And once ingrained, it's tough to root out. Lebanon is a small country with a big corruption problem. NPR's Alice Fordham has this report on one group there that's fighting back with smartphones.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There's like 4 million people in Lebanon. Sometimes you feel the whole country's a village. Everyone knows everyone, and that can be great. But lawyer Rabih El Chaer says there's a flipside: that people expect favors and bent rules. And that's an environment where corruption flourishes. There's even an Arabic proverb.

RABIH EL CHAER: (Speaking Arabic). If you are corrupted, you are a brave person, so it's a shame.

FORDHAM: He thinks if they want to stop it, they've got two choices. One...

CHAER: Whether we change the Lebanese population, and it's so hard for us to do it...

FORDHAM: Or two, they change the way things are done. We're in the offices of the NGO he heads. Its name translates to shut the store. He wants it to be more effective than previous anti-corruption campaigns.

CHAER: So we want it to be a grassroot movement. We want it to attract a new generation.

FORDHAM: One way they're doing that is with a smartphone app. People use it to report when they're asked for a bribe when applying for a driving license or whatever. They don't have to give their name. Chaer shows me how it works.

CHAER: You can write the amount of the bribe. You can choose also the institution where you paid the bribe, OK?

FORDHAM: They've already used the info people sent in via the app as part of a report, which has helped push the prime minister and finance minister to promise to address the problem. The app's been going six months and has quite a few users.

CHAER: We have almost 3,000, but our target is to have tens of thousands.

FORDHAM: They have other tactics, as well, like driving up to government offices in their brightly branded car and asking people coming out if they had to pay a bribe. But they hope the app will be something that grows.

In a nearby cafe, one app user named Cynthia Abu Aoun says she heard about it after a big TV campaign the group did.

CYNTHIA ABU AOUN: Out of curiosity, I downloaded the app. It was really easy to use and practical.

FORDHAM: So far, they've found the most corruption in the land registration ministry. Abu Aoun is an architect. And when a colleague was asked to pay to speed up a construction permit...

ABU AOUN: And the guy was so upset. And he went out. And he didn't pay, but he was so angry, and he told us.

FORDHAM: So she got on her smartphone.

ABU AOUN: Because it's anonymous, and it's very easy.

FORDHAM: And when she sent the report in...

ABU AOUN: I felt good (laughter). I felt that - I don't know - I'm doing something good. I'm active. I know that it's - to fight corruption, you need decades. But we can start in small things, in few things.

FORDHAM: A lot of her friends are skeptical. They think one, 100, 1,000 people can't make a difference. But she feels it's all about getting young people on board.

ABU AOUN: I like the fact that they are using a lot of technology and social media because you reach the young generation, and change starts with the young generation.

FORDHAM: The app's alerts pop up on Abu Aoun's phone. She sees the group's Facebook posts and tweets. She hopes these modern little nudges will help shape a new way of thinking about an old problem. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.