Corruption in education is a pervasive global issue, and represents a major obstacle to a country’s human and economic development. According to Transparency International, because education accounts for such a large portion of national spending (20-30% on average), it is disproportionately prone to corrupt activity.
This problem is particularly acute in Liberia, where abuse of resources, teacher absenteeism, sexual harassment and patronage at all levels of the public education system are everyday occurrences. But now, students have a way to fight back with ‘Tell it True’, a simple SMS-based system that allows students, professors and administrators to anonymously report corrupt or unethical behaviour.
Tell-it-True, which means “tell the truth” in Liberian vernacular, was launched in 2013 by local student Maria Fahnbulleh. She witnessed how ineffective and untrustworthy traditional complaint mechanisms were, and was frustrated by the culture of silence that surrounds corruption in the Liberian school system. In 2014, the system was introduced into several high schools in Liberia thanks to financial support from Transparency International and OSIWA.
A simple but highly effective reporting system
Tell-it-True uses simple and open source technology to give students a voice and monitor the health of school systems. Students and administrators simply need to text their issue or complaint to 8355 or “TELL”. The information is recorded on a basic spreadsheet and an operator will call to follow up with the individual within 24 hours for further details. All information is stored offline to mitigate internet connectivity issues in Liberia and the SMS codes have been provided for free, thanks to support from major mobile operators.
The information collected through ‘Tell it True’ is then brought to the attention of academic administration, student government and Parent Teacher Associations as needed. These groups work collaboratively to determine appropriate next steps. Additionally, regular meetings are held with the larger student body to share key information, explain what steps are being taken to address the issues and promote use of the system. As a result of this cycle, ‘Tell-it-True’ not only serves as an effective reporting system, but also as a deterrent for future misconduct.
Support from the top
This anonymous SMS ‘suggestion box’ system definitely helps bring issues to light and gives students a way to air their grievances without fear of punishment. But, in order for this system to work, it requires strong buy-in from people in leadership roles. If academic administration does not drive the action agenda and enforce accountability, unjust activities will continue to occur. Fortunately, many Liberians are anxious to tackle the corruption issue and restore the education system to what it was prior to the country’s 14-year civil war; they simply don’t have the tools or reach to do it. ‘Tell it True’ provides an important tool to help jump start the conversation and discern the truth.
Using this kind of innovation to combat corruption in education is critical. Liberia’s education system faces severe challenges, including limited resources, teachers and technology, which impedes the quality of students’ learning. Tack on corrupt grading schemes, and the result is students frequently graduating with misleading credentials that leave them completely unprepared for the demands of the job market. With this trend happening country-wide, the implications for the country’s development are huge. Hopefully this innovation will serve as the first of many steps taken to make Liberia’s schools safer and more conducive to learning.
For more information, check out the International Anti-Corruption Conference’s article.