In Papua New Guinea, they call it the ‘wantok system.’
Wantok comes from the word ‘one talk,’ the language of the tribe, to which a person belongs. More significantly it means that a person from a tribe or clan who achieves success must care for his relatives and friends.
“In Papua New Guinea (PNG) relationships are very important in the ‘wantok system,’ to keep ethnic and cultural ties intact,” says Sam Erepan, a manager of a provincial capacity building program, with the government of PNG. “People taking care of others, looking after their relatives, this is the way to maintain strong bonds in Melanesian society.”
But the ‘wantok system’ also has a negative side. It has been cited, as a major impediment in exposing corruption that bedevils PNG. Transparency International ranks the country 136 out of 176 countries, in its 2016 Corruption Perception Index. It falls below satisfactory levels of the UN Convention Against Corruption. And the World Bank’s Global Governance Corruption Index has it among the lowest 15 percent of countries dealing with corruption.
But over the past five years an innovative programme, known as Phones Against Corruption, is trying to dent the narrative of corruption, in PNG. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with PNG’s Department of Finance launched the programme, in 2014. The initiative provides a safe space to report corruption in government. Citizens can simply send a text about what they have witnessed to a specific number, using even a basic cell phone. They must respond to three questions: what is the case, when it took place, and where it took place.
Most importantly it is free and anonymous, says Erepan, whose office oversees the Phones Against Corruption initiative. The programme is funded by the Government of Australia, as part of an anti-corruption project, in Asia and the Pacific.
All texts to the anti-corruption hotline go through Digicel, a service provider in PNG. Digicel encrypts the numbers and forwards the text messages to a database in the Department of Finance, which investigates the incidents.
To date, over 6000 text messages of corrupt activities havebeen reported. About 3,700 have been tagged by Erepan’s staff for further screening, and more than 900 cases are being examined to determine whether they need deeper inspection. So far, the Department of Finance has begun investigations into more than 250 cases of alleged corruption. Authorities have arrested two government officials for mismanagement of funds totaling more than US $2 million; and five people are awaiting court verdicts.
The anti-corruption initiative has expanded to include all government departments in PNG. Now text messages that have been screened and verified are directed to audit committees of specific departments, for further deliberations. Erepan who comes from the province of Enga, in the northern highlands, says anonymity is vital, to combat the ‘wantok system.’
“If it was not anonymous, I doubt it would work because in a country where relationships are tight people won’t report on friends or relatives, if they are doing something wrong.”
The success of the program has not gone unnoticed. At a recent anti-corruption workshop on the initiative co-hosted by UNDP, Barnabas Anga, High Commissioner of the Solomon Islands in PNG, expressed interest in replicating the “Phones Against Corruption” initiative.
“South-South Cooperation is an important forum whereby PNG can share its experiences, challenges, and successes in the ‘Phones Against Corruption’ initiative to other Pacific countries and provide support to them in establishing a similar tool,” said Anga.
Setariki Waqanitoga, a policy advisor with Vanuatu’s Ministry of Justice said his government would also consider incorporating the initiative into his country’s anti-corruption plans. For Sam Erepan, the success of the initiative has been overwhelming. He says, he has travelled to more than 10 countries to receive awards for the anti-corruption initiative. It has received recognition for tackling corruption from as far away Bahamas to the most recent accolade in Malaysia, the Sheik Tamim Hamad Al Thani International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award, for Anti-Corruption Innovation.
South-South Cooperation is an important forum whereby Papua New Guinea can share its experiences, challenges, and successes.
“I never expected to travel these places,” says Erepan. “So many people are so keen to know about this and would like us to share PNG’s experience.” As recognition of the initiative and its impact grows, Erepan hopes PNG will soon set up an independent commission against anti-corruption. “I want this initiative to be regulated by the government and to be well resourced so that it is effective,” he says. “It will also need a central independent commission to regulate it, which should be at arms-length from the government.”