If enough honest people in a corrupt nation refuse to pay bribes, say experts, corruption would start to disappear. But how to rally the honest to take such a stand? On Wednesday, the southern African country of Zimbabwe showed the world what might be possible.
Rather than stage a massive street protest against government corruption, activists in Zimbabwe simply asked people to “stay away” from public activities for a day. The result: Much of the government as well as businesses in major cities came to a virtual halt. Many streets were deserted. By not participating in an economy eroded by wholesale graft, millions of people used the power of nonconformity to send a message to the regime of President Robert Mugabe.
The idea began last April with a young pastor, Evan Mawarire, in the capital Harare. Struggling to find money for his children’s school fees, he launched a campaign against government failures on Twitter and YouTube. The response was overwhelming and eventually led to the “stay-away day,” as it was called.
“We could not have asked for any better. Zimbabweans have sent out a clear message that they are fed up with a system that protects thieves and corrupt government officials,” said Mr. Mawarire.
Such nonviolent tactics are what African corruption fighter John Githongo calls a “soft insurgency” for honest governance. With the power of Twitter and other social media, citizens can now more easily mobilize boycotts or protests. Once they find each other on the Internet and then on the streets, they stand a chance to influence established politics and can start to clean up government.
In Brazil, street protests against corruption, as well as the actions of a few bold prosecutors, have turned that country’s politics upside down. In Mexico, public outrage over recent corruption scandals and government incompetence has led to a series of new anti-corruption laws. In Iceland, a prime minster was forced to resign this year following protests over the discovery of his wife’s secret offshore bank account.
In South Korea, following popular outrage over the corruption behind the sinking of a ferry that killed 304 people two years ago, the government passed a law this spring that bans the kind of gift-giving that promotes corrupt ties between business and government officials.
In many democracies, from India to Nigeria, more leaders are being elected on anti-corruption campaigns. But their victories and their ability to carry out reforms depend more than ever on the new Internet-charged activism that connects citizens who embrace honesty, transparency, and accountability – and who refuse to conform to the old habits of government graft.