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Website aims to expose corruption in Lebanon

The website urges citizens to share their experiences with bribing public employees.

BEIRUT: Bribing government clerks to speed up paperwork, reduce property taxes or hasten car registration is a common practice in Lebanon.

The media have reported extensively on corruption in most government departments, but no real action has been taken to crack down on the violators.

To encourage citizens to exercise their rights and highlight some of these complaints, Rabih Sfeir launched rashwe.com in December, the first portal in Lebanon which handles such sensitive matters.

“Many in Lebanon despair, accepting corruption as part of daily life, while many people see it as one way of getting things done with minimal hassle,” Sfeir told The Daily Star.

“This is precisely what the website intends to change,” Sfeir, a 35-old finance professional, explained.

The website, which aims to track and analyze bribery, is Sfeir’s own reaction to a blatant bribe request by a vehicle registration clerk.

In the 15 minutes Sfeir spent at the office, the corrupt employee pocketed no less than LL5,000 from each of the eight citizens he saw.

“In Lebanon, everyone has a bribe story, but we do not have any sort of data or ways to collect evidence,” he said.

The website, Sfeir added, was mainly intended to collect data and issue analytical reports that shed light not only on the cost of bribery to the Lebanese economy, but to help change the bitter reality by exposing the most corrupt departments.

In other service-oriented economies, he said, studies showed corruption ate away a huge chunk of GDP.

“With a GDP of around $39 billion, and the approximation with Mexico, which has a better transparency ranking, the cost of bribery in Lebanon could amount to up to $3.9 billion per year, or 10 percent of our GDP,” he said.

But the website’s first statistics this month show that Lebanese still lack the courage to try and make a difference. “It is some sort of a fear factor that keeps people from reporting on the bribes they are paying,” Sfeir explained.

Out of 1,920 unique visitors and 2,225 visits the website attracted, only 47 individuals made corruption claims. Though not insignificant, the claims are not yet enough to generate national data, Sfeir said.

More than 20 percent of the claims cited violations during car registration. Many complaints indicated that public employees often do not return the change when a fee or a stamp is paid, making sizeable profits at the expense of citizens, Sfeir added.

To attract more traffic and claims, Sfeir plans to reach out to a bigger audience through social media and advertisements, encouraging people to overcome their fears and report any incidents. Financing for the website is so far provided by Sfeir himself.

The privacy of the claimant is guaranteed and people can choose to remain anonymous. “The purpose of the website is to compile data and not to single out individuals,” Sfeir stressed.

Falling behind a global average of 43 points, Lebanon ranks 128th out of 174 countries surveyed for corruption perception, according to the Corruption Perception Index issued by Transparency International in December.

“Lose the fear and hope for a chance of success. You have nothing to lose but the higher cost of transacting with the government and some of your frustration,” Sfeir adds on his website, urging citizens to act more and talk less.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2013, on page 5.

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