Q&A with Sheldon Himelfarb President and CEO of PeaceTech Lab
Sheldon was kind enough to talk with us about how technology is being used to fight corruption – and why we need initiatives like Shield in the Cloud
What is the relationship between technology and anti-corruption efforts?
The way I see it; tech is a tool. It can be used both to facilitate corruption and to counter it.
Now, rooting out corruption is obviously no easy feat and it requires a multi-pronged approach. It exists in a varied number of complex contexts. There are complex webs of cultural norms, leadership systems, legal frameworks and myriad other factors of which technology is just one – but it is one where there’s lots of exciting innovation that is shifting the balance of power in favor of citizens.
Can you share any case studies of new technology being used to tackle corruption?
One of the interesting things about this field is just how varied the solutions are. They vary in scale from the reform efforts of national governments to local initiatives started by startups or individuals. They are varied in terms of the type of solution; from crowdsourcing information to big data analysis. And they are also varied in terms of the countries and communities they work in. At PeaceTech Lab we tend to focus our work in countries with a recent history of conflict – but tech solutions are needed to fight corruption in rich, stable countries just as much, not least because money stolen through corruption is often laundered through rich-world financial systems.
Let’s take two examples from the world of tax corruption to illustrate this point; Afghanistan and Australia. In Afghanistan, the government, with the help of organizations like Adam Smith International, has overhauled its internal systems by digitizing tax records. This has made it much more difficult for officials to take bribes or pocket revenues because it is much harder to cover it up, falsify a chain of documents or lose the file. Partly as a result of that tech solution, which we in D.C. might consider fairly basic, Afghanistan has been able to increase tax revenue from $250m in 2004 to approximately $2b today. That’s a huge material difference and helps the government invest in the future.
Something similar is happening in Australia. There Taxation Office there recently began to use big data analysis to search through vast numbers of tax records in search of tax havens and evasion. Sophisticated approaches like that can yield impressive results that sophisticated but conventional methods can’t. It will benefit Australia’s taxpayers but it will also benefit people around the world by shutting down the systems that launder money stolen or extorted in other countries.
Those two examples so far have both been about top-down government-led tech solutions, so let me give you something different. In India there’s a mobile app and website called I Paid a Bribe. It’s a service that crowd sources information about bribery and corruption at every level of government, from exposing traffic wardens to identifying fraud in the issuance of passports. Created by a non-profit, it’s a way for people to contribute directly to the fight against corruption by raising awareness and initiating process change by working with the media and government.
Nearly every day we read of another new deployment of tech for this purpose and of the promising results they are yielding. Driven by dedicated people, technological change is having a major effect on the fight against corruption.
How is the PeaceTech Lab helping?
We focus on several areas. First and foremost are the “PeaceTech Exchanges (PTXs)” which we host. We use these programs to train activists, NGO’s and local governments in the use of tech to promote greater accountability. We’ve held these in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently in Costa Rica, where we gathered together activists from six countries across Central America. That one has produced several projects that range from a web platform that surveys and guides users on ways to counter corruption they’re encountering to a chatbot designed to shed light on opaque budgeting processes..
Secondly, we have formed a partnership with C5 and Amazon Web Services to create a dedicated PeaceTech Accelerator to support startups with mentoring, access to capital and access to cloud computing resources. This accelerator has a broader remit than just corruption and is open to organizations working in a number of social-impact fields in conflict-regions.
Shield in the Cloud is our third area of focus, again in partnership with C5 and AWS. It is the world’s first anti-corruption innovation challenge and organizations of all sizes are welcome to apply, so long as they are using cloud-based technology. There are a number of different awards, each of which recognizes the very best in class tech innovations and winners receive AWS credits to spend on digital infrastructure – as well as a space in the PeaceTech Accelerator!
What are the challenges being faced by start-ups in developing and bringing these technologies to market?
As the Lab is focused in conflict regions, the organisations we hear from have two major hurdles: access to capital and intimidation.
Can governments and corporates help overcome those challenges?
Absolutely. Corporate and government relationships can go a long way to protecting the individuals behind these initiatives, which is crucial as they can attract a lot of attention from vested interests. That said, all too often we see corporate and government interests being used to expose these change agents to greater risk.
A great way big organizations can support start-ups is by establishing public-private partnerships. But governments and corporates have to act in full recognition of the unique challenges that come with the kind of technology we’re talking about. The advances in big data, data analytics, and cloud computing in the last three years alone have been staggering and present us with extraordinary opportunities to fight corruption in new ways. Slow, bureaucratic programs just won’t cut it in a world where technological innovation is moving at a million miles an hour.
Is there a limit to what ‘establishment’ organisations can do to help?
Independence is absolutely vital for both the credibility and the effectiveness of the effort; otherwise you have the fox guarding the henhouse. This perspective explains why governments in many of the conflict countries where we work have been so remiss in dedicating serious resources to solving the problem.
Technology is shifting the balance of power between governments and citizens on a fundamental level. The availability of low-cost tech is changing the landscape. It’s possible for more people than ever to participate in anti-corruption efforts.