Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The zero rupee

The Economist reports on a brilliant Indian idea to fight corruption that seems actually to work. (The article, in the 28 January edition, isn’t online until next week but you can read it here. Honestly, those Indians have no respect for intellectual property.) The idea is that when asked for a bribe, you hand over a zero-rupee note which looks just like normal currency but says “Eliminate corruption at all levels. Zero rupees. I promise to neither accept nor give bribe.”

Apparently this so shames the bribe-seekers that they stop:
One official in Tamil Nadu was so stunned to receive the note that he handed back all the bribes he had solicited for providing electricity to a village. Another stood up, offered tea to the old lady from whom he was trying to extort money and approved a loan so her granddaughter could go to college.
The concept was invented by an expatriate physics professor who was irritated on returning home by incessant demands for bribes:
He gave the notes to the importuning officials as a polite way of saying no. Vijay Anand, president of an NGO called 5th Pillar, thought it might work on a larger scale. He had 25,000 zero-rupee notes printed and publicised to mobilise opposition to corruption. They caught on: his charity has distributed 1m since 2007.
There is more about 5th Pillar’s work here, and here at its associated site Zero Currency are images of a similar anti-corruption note for each country in the world, along with its corruption perception ranking. For example:

New Zealand is #1 – that is, the most incorrupt country – while Australia is #9 for 2008, which is at least an improvement on #14 in 2007. (There is a more up-to-date list for 2009 at Transparency International, in which New Zealand is still #1 and Australia is now equal #8.)

I wonder if this idea would work in a country with a less structured and/or less religious society, one where there is less sense of shame. That is, I can see it being very successful in Japan or Samoa, but less so in . . . well, some other places.


Chad Taylor said...

The moral piquancy of handing over a counterfeit bribe may be lost in a more "quick on the trigger" region.

Stephen Stratford said...

Well yes. I wouldn't care to try it at a roadblock in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country formerly known as Zaire. Or in any of its neighbours.