Digital Cameras and Cell Phones Reduce Corruption in Afghan Elections

The search for better economic policy.
Oct. 21 2011 7:13 AM

A Picture of Democracy

How digital cameras and smartphones might reduce corruption in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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But evidently it's harder to stuff the ballot box than it is to change the results in transit to Kabul. Overall, the camera intervention reduced the vote shares of candidates whom the researchers identified as likely to have engaged in fraud—those who, for example, were connected to Afghan President Hamid Karzai through relatives or past work experience—by about 25 percent.

Why were cameras so effective at keeping candidates honest, where so often monitors armed with clipboards had failed before? It may be the discipline that it imposes on the monitors themselves—it’s harder to doctor a photo than it is to fudge the numbers. The presence of digital cameras also provides the threat of immediate feedback, since images can be broadcast instantly to monitors in Kabul. And it doesn’t seem to be simple beginner’s luck with the first trial in Afghanistan—in the past year, Callen and Long have run another pilot during the national election in Uganda last February, to similar effect, this time using smartphones to capture the images.

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But the researchers view these successes as mere proof of concept for a much more ambitious effort. They see camera and cell-phone technology as enabling crowd-sourced election monitoring, where any local resident could photograph and send in images of results to election authorities. This would do away with the cost of official monitors and also provide a further safeguard against doctored photographs, since election auditors in the capital would potentially receive many images taken independently of the same display of results, and collected in real time to reveal problems and irregularities as they occur.

Such an approach has already shown some promise using SMS text messaging, and Callen and Long are working with Qualcomm to develop the software that would be required to make this sort of citizen monitoring work for anyone with a functioning Android cell phone.

Before we get too excited about smartphones as the savior of democracy, it’s worth remembering that corrupt candidates were able to deploy alternative tactics even on very short notice, in the hours after the monitors delivered their warning letters. If something like Callen and Long's procedure became the norm, powerful candidates might simply persuade the government to prevent the photographing of results, or to stop posting them at all. In fact, at the end of the day, democracy advocates may worry that photo audits may simply shift power from small-time candidates to big-time ones that are best able to find alternative forms of vote manipulation. We’ll find out when electronic monitoring makes its next appearance at Afghan polling stations.

Callen and Long’s grander hope is that even well-connected politicians might be kept in check by a more ambitious form of crowd-sourced monitoring—and that, inspired by their efforts, local software developers will use their app or variants of it to stay one step ahead of the corrupt officials. It’s of course ridiculous to expect that this simple fix, or any other, will springboard Afghanistan to the top ranks of Transparency’s corruption index. But regime change does bring hope for gradual change. For example, Indonesia was at or near the bottom rungs before the Suharto regime fell in that country. Its ranking in 2010 was 110, putting it squarely in the middle of the pack after just a decade of reform. It’s the sort of citizen-empowering innovations like smartphone election monitoring that can give Afghans similar hope for the future.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

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