Mobile payments curbing corruption in Afghanistan – A myth?

Last year, I started hearing references to how payments through mobile phone can curb government corruption.  I heard such comments during a seminar series I organise at Stanford and also in a series of conferences that I organised on technology and accountability.  Many people cited an experiment in Afghanistan to pay salaries of police officials through mobile phones, which is supposed to have reduced corruption by 30%.

I also found references to this claim in a USAID press release.  It was reported in media outlets such as Telegraph of UK and Tech Crunch.  The story was positively reported with headlines such as the ones below, leading readers to believe that the system has serious promise.

M-Paisa: Ending Afghan Corruption, one Text at a Time (Tech Crunch)

Program to Pay Afghan Police Through Mobile Money Transfers Could Curb Corruption (Government Executive)

Can Mobile Payments Reduce Corruption and Help Workers in the Developing World? (Tech President)

Considering how popular the idea had become, I started looking for a study that led to this conclusion.  While I was able to find a lot of references in media outlets and blogs, I could not locate any study online. I then decided to submit a FOIA application to USAID, which had initiated the experiment on a pilot basis.  USAID responded by saying that the assessment was not based on any study, and it was merely anecdotal.

An audit report by USAID painted a less rosy picture about the status of mobile payments.  It said, “So little information exists on mobile money in Afghanistan that it is difficult to gauge what the project’s results should have been”.  The report added that multiple grants for mobile money projects in Afghanistan have failed to take off.  Four-hundred teachers who were registered to get salary through mobile phones did not exercise that option and only 15 of the 87,815 people who registered to pay utility bills through mobile phone used the service – all of them were USAID employees.  I found no references online to this report, while the positive story was more widely reported.

A positive bias on technology?

The broader coverage of the positive reports and relative lack of coverage of sceptical reports on technology is an interesting phenomenon.  I felt this for the first time when a technology project I was working on was reported in multiple countries even after we had just done the first mock up in a hackathon, and the coverage happened effortlessly.  On the contrary, I have experience is struggling for coverage on much more significant things I had done in the past during my years with the right food campaign.

While I am an enthusiast for the potential that technology has the foster positive social change, I am troubled by the tremendous bias that seems to exist in how information about technology spreads. Such a tendency could leave us with false impressions about what technology could achieve, and thus invest on policies that are highly suboptimal.  In an era where technology is such a central source of our excitement, I worry that we will make many policy choices that reflect our enthusiasm rather than the reality.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.