Buying a new home is a process fraught with stress, from finding the right property to the substantial financial investment. In Moldova, however, an additional concern has buyers distraught – the threat that the building construction company will disappear, taking their life savings with them. Irina Lazur and the Centre for Transparency and Civic Participation, PARTICIP, have created an online platform – LaEtaj – to counter the lack of transparency and accountability in the construction industry and state institutions by facilitating citizen engagement.
In Chisinau, Moldova, 60 families were left (high and dry) when a construction company completed only two floors of their apartment complex. Unfortunately, in Moldova this situation is not uncommon, and there is minimal information available to buyers to vet the companies. Over the past five years, there have been 50 cases of real estate fraud and corruption opened by the Anti-Corruption Centre of Moldova. According to Transparency International, the country is ranked 102 out of 177 for perceived corruption of the public sector, with a score of 35 out of 100. An incredible 53-66% of respondents feel that businesses, public officials and civil servants are corrupt or extremely corrupt, yet there is little hope for redress when 76-80% think the same of the judiciary and the police.
For Moldovans, this online platform is the first time that they have had open access to crucial data on construction companies that will help them make informed decisions and purchases. The project is focused on Chisinau City, and provides detailed profiles of about 110 construction companies and their ongoing construction projects, including information on the owners, any criminal records, company history, project statuses and more. The website encourages citizen participation by inviting them to request data on companies not yet present on the site and through a visitors’ column that allows them to submit experiences and information and to report abuses and fraud by the companies and state institutions. So far, the project has received positive support from Moldovans.
LaEtaj is funded in part by a €5000 grant from the International Anti-Corruption Conference’s (IACC) Social Entrepreneurs Initiative. The conference itself is organized by the IACC, Transparency International and national hosts, and the initiative is focused on seeking out individuals motivated to create innovative methods of solving corruption problems. LaEtaj has partnered with the Chisinau Mayor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice and Anticorruption Centre to facilitate access to documents and databases, in addition to receiving support from the US Department of State.
For the award-winning human rights and media activist, this project is one of many that Irina Lazur is involved with in order to fight corruption in Moldova. With ten years of experience with media, anticorruption work and human rights projects, Irina was one of the journalists who investigated the corruption of former President Vladimir Voronin, the reports of which played a leading role in public protests and his downfall. While Moldovan civil society has become less tolerant of corruption and more active in decision-making processes and monitoring the government, they remain very passive and reticent towards requiring punishments for those responsible for corruption. There is hope that as more projects such as this emerge, that public pressure and involvement will become more substantive.
The impacts of corruption on human development are innumerable. Transparency International shows that measures taken by Moldovan institutions to counter and prevent corruption have had only very modest results. Instead of regurgitating, adapting and implementing the same tools and methods, new innovative ideas that invoke citizen participation – like Irina Lazur’s LaEtaj project – are what is needed for concrete, substantial change. To begin, citizens have to believe that change is possible.
We spoke with the team in Moldova about the project and its success:
ID: Which institution’s corruption has the most impact on the construction industry?
TI: The corruption in institutions dealing with issue of construction permits and inspection of construction sites has the most impact on construction industry in Moldova. According to Doing Business in Moldova research, Regulation of construction is critical to protect the public, but it needs to be efficient, to avoid excessive constraints on a sector that plays an important part in every economy. Where complying with building regulations is excessively costly in time and money, many builders opt out. They may pay bribes to pass inspections or simply build illegally, leading to hazardous construction that puts public safety at risk. Where compliance is simple, straightforward and inexpensive, everyone is better off.
Globally, Moldova stands at 175 in the ranking of 189 economies on the ease of dealing with construction permits (more here).
ID: With high levels of disbelief in the ability of the individual to affect corruption (Transparency International states that 43% of Moldovans disagree or strongly disagree that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption), what levels of citizen participation has this garnered? Has it changed citizens’ perceptions of their ability to change endemic corruption?
TI: It is difficult to answer to this question. We have no official data or statistics measuring the level of citizen participation before November 2013, when website was launched, and now.
ID: Is there any vetting in the visitors’ column of the website to ensure the truth of the statements and the identities of those making the statements (i.e. to ensure companies aren’t stating good things about themselves)?
TI: Yes, we have. The visitors must indicate the address where they live and a contact phone number and email in order to publish a statement. We check if the identity is not fake and only then decide to publish or not comment.
ID: To what extent has real estate fraud been diminished by this project?
TI: We hope so, but it is difficult to provide any official statistics. People are accessing the web site, are calling and requesting additional information and we believe this contributes to diminishing the real estate frauds.
ID: As of November 2013, how many unique visitors have accessed the web portal?
TI: As of November 2013 the web site had 9,874 unique visitors.