Corruption? Not In My Country

Raymond Qatahar, a first-year law student at Makerere University, is eager to use Not In My Country. The website, launched in May, asks students in Uganda to report corruption in higher education – such as lecturers trading higher grades for money or sex – and lets students rate classroom experiences.

In four months, the site claims to have had visitors from 128 countries and earned a place on the United Kingdom’s Observer newspaper’s list of five apps putting key information into the hands of ordinary Africans.

While its use is still relatively low – 81 faculty members have been voted on a total of 224 times – fans such as Qatahar say it should gain traction once students realise they have a platform for feedback that current university structures do not often solicit.

Qatahar, one of the first followers of the site’s Twitter account, said Not In My Country is a window into problems he described as common, but which usually go unreported.

When nobody is held accountable for coercing bribes for grades, for instance, it could lead to more systemic problems in Ugandan society, he said. Lack of accountability also perpetuates a cycle of corruption extending beyond university gates.

A recent study of East Africa corruption, published by Germany-based anti-corruption campaigners Transparency International, cited Uganda as the most bribery-prone of five countries surveyed.

Not In My Country was conceived in response to experiences two founders had with corruption in previous work – not necessarily in Uganda – according to an emailed response from a site spokesperson.

Because the origins of the site and the people running it are kept secret, the spokesperson would say only that Uganda was chosen because the founders have ties there and the potential was obvious.

In a blog post soon after launch, the organisers explained that they decided specifically to target higher education in their fight against corruption. As they put it, if students are “empowered to hold abusers to account, the results will have ramifications across Uganda for years to come”.

A risky business

Confronting corruption, even at university level, is risky.

Not In My Country has various safeguards to protect identities. Each founder or organiser uses a pseudonym when emailing. They have blocked ownership records for the web domain.

“Corruption puts a lot of money in people's pockets and it also is the foundation of many people’s careers,” the spokesperson said in an email. “If you threaten people's jobs or money, it’s quite conceivable that they may take these threats seriously enough to try to get rid of their problem by getting rid of you.”

Protecting privacy has come with some drawbacks.

The spokesperson said it has been difficult to promote the site while hiding the identities of the people behind it. Though active on Facebook and other social networks, they are unable to do the kind of on-the-ground recruiting that would help immediately ramp up the number of participants.

What it is attempting, though, is unique enough that early adopters such as Qatahar expect participation to grow as more students become aware of it.

It is not just the focus on higher education that makes Not In My Country distinctive.

While the site is part of a wave of new online endeavours in Africa harnessing technology to spotlight corruption, the majority, such as Kenya’s I Paid a Bribe, tend to be straightforward reporting mechanisms.

What sets Not In My Country apart is that it tries to “tackle both the quiet corruption and the hard corruption”, said Johan Hellström, an advisor on using mobile technology for development, who works for the Swedish Program for ICT in Development (SPIDER), one of Not In My Country’s funders.

“That they could do that from the same site” impressed the team from SPIDER, he added.

Students registering and verifying an account have the option to report anonymously cases of ‘hard corruption’ – money or sex for grades. Not In My Country has received four corruption reports so far, three from students being asked to pay money in exchange for grades, and one for sex.

Those reports are tagged to specific university departments on the site.

The Not In My Country spokesperson said specific cases could be further publicised if a lawyer thinks the evidence is strong enough to launch litigation or if hard evidence exists.

Improving the university experience

The part of the site that would have been more useful to Esther Bayiga, who completed an undergraduate programme in biomedical sciences at Makerere University last May, is the chance to give feedback on her university experience.

The ‘quiet corruption’ aspect asks students to rank professors, lecturers and administrative staff on attendance, communication skills, accessibility, efficiency and fairness.

For Bayiga, who claimed that some lecturers she encountered during her three-year course appeared not to have prepared for classes or did not show up at all, addressing these issues is critical to improving the university experience.

“Sometimes [professors] don’t come and it’s normal,” she said. “Then you don’t know who to tell, because he [the department head] is also not in office.” She said the university provided no official mechanism to report absenteeism.

Students angered by paying for services they were not receiving started a Facebook group called "We Are Tired" in protest. Not In My Country, though, has more potential to be “something for those frustrated people” than a one-off Facebook group, Bayiga said.

While welcoming increased scrutiny of corruption in higher education Joab Agaba, a lecturer in Makerere’s school of computing and IT, said he doubted the effectiveness of the ranking system.

Agaba, currently one of the highest-rated individuals on Not In My Country, said the anonymity gave students an outlet for “easy malice” that was not necessarily warranted. He worried that an aggrieved student would register more than once to skew results, though the founders said systems were in place to prevent this.

He said a better alternative was his department’s system of seeking direct, anonymous, end-of-semester reviews from students. If a consistent problem is identified, the lecturer or professor must meet the department head to discuss ways to improve.

Agaba said, though, that his school was unique at Makerere in having a consistent assessment system for students.

Qatahar said that until more universities started taking student complaints seriously, Not In My Country was the best option to change the situation. “The lecturers keep watch and say, ‘I do not want to appear on Not In My Country’.

“They do know about the site. They are paying attention.”