Tech vs. Corruption: How AI and Digital Tools Can Aid Transparency in the Pacific

May 22, 2024

While the issue of corruption is far less ‘visible’, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s any less pervasive to – or prevalent within – the way of life for people across PICs.

Photo: Supplied

Ask anyone from outside the Pacific what the single greatest threat to the region is and the answer, no doubt, would be linked to climate change. And they would be correct, with the region on the frontlines of rising sea levels, increasing disasters, and all that the climate crisis brings with it.  

However, a silent threat lies simmering beneath the surface: corruption.  

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2023, the average score for Pacific Island Countries (PICs) was 43 out of 100, indicating significant levels of corruption.

While the issue of corruption is far less ‘visible’, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s any less pervasive to – or prevalent within – the way of life for people across PICs.

Climate change may certainly pose an existential threat – and an increasingly everyday occurrence for many – but it is corruption that remains an issue that keeps many people awake at night.

The answer to so many of our development challenges in 2024 sees us looking to the digital space for solutions, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji is no exception to this rule. However, the concept of technosolutionism – the theory that every problem can and should solved with technology – should be met with a degree of caution.  

Digital is certainly part of the overall puzzle, but it should not be seen as a panacea for stamping out corruption across the Pacific. A balance between the desire for digital solutions and the continued need for improved connectivity in the region must be found. Tempering the view of digital as a one-size-fits-all fix is essential.

Let's ditch the jargon, however, and talk real solutions. UNDP isn't just sitting around watching the digital revolution zoom by, the Pacific multi-country office is working with partners to grab the wheel and steer the region towards tackling corruption, from Palau in the North to Tonga in the South.  

Imagine apps that make reporting corruption as easy as hailing a taxi or a bus. Transparency? Accountability? You bet. Technology can tighten things up when it comes to managing public funds and keeping an eye on procurement. And it gets even better. Artificial intelligence (AI)? Think of it as our 21st Century superpower, sniffing out suspicious transactions and patterns that might signal corruption or corrupt practices.

Thus far, UNDP Pacific facilitated the first Pacific ‘Hackathon’ in 2022, which focused on improving public financial management and addressing corruption through tech-based responses, in partnership with Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society and the Pacific Island Association of NGOs. Furthermore, UNDP has also supported tech-based data management approaches as part of its support to implementing the right to information and accountability.  

In Vanuatu, UNDP continues to support furthering the Right to Information (RTI), with the country’s RTI Unit digitizing their data and information management systems. And finally, digital is being used to engage the public in demanding social accountability and transparency in the Pacific; from reporting corruption via mobile phones in Papua New Guinea, AI-powered budget support in Fiji, and the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organizations e-budget platform across the region.  

The digital revolution, however, isn't a silver bullet.  

It’s a powerful tool we can't ignore, but it must be carefully managed to be cognizant of the current challenges facing many PICs; those joining the already-long queue seeking to harness the powerful benefits offered by digital.  

Corruption isn't some abstract concept. It means medicines get stuck in bureaucratic limbo, leaving people waiting. It means potholes reappear on poorly maintained roads, a constant reminder of a contract awarded not to those not qualified. It means a leaky roof in a classroom, symbolizing a broken education system. These are the daily realities that digital solutions alone cannot fix.

Eradicating corruption demands a whole-of-society approach. We need all Pacific Island Countries on board, working together. While digital tools have a role to play, lasting change hinges on people, not machines.  

For sustainable, long-lasting development to work, it's about empowering citizens and strengthening institutions to build a future where everyone thrives.

Digital, AI, anti-corruption and more will be discussed from 29-31 May at ‘Tackling corruption in the Pacific: Can technology and artificial intelligence facilitate a breakthrough?’. 

The event brings together Pacific officials, civil society organizations, academics, media, and technology experts in the first of a series of meetings that will support the sharing of knowledge, good practice and lessons learned regarding how ICT can be utilized to promote transparency and accountability and address corruption more effectively through making government processes more efficient.