Zero Balance: Fighting Petty Corruption in PNG
It wasn’t so long ago that Julius Moab’s album, Zero Blance – Rai Coast i no BSP Bank, was hitting the airwaves of PNG. In his typical style of musical parody, Moab had everyday Papua New Guineans singing the lyrics of his comic performance. Within an economic context, a zero-sum game is one in which the gains of one player are exactly balanced by the loss of the another. Moab used the zero-sum reference to highlight the difficulty in meeting the demands of the extended family system within PNG as a result of the social transaction of acquiring a wife.
Within India, a developing country PNG can learn from, the zero-sum game is being played out in the fight against petty corruption through the implementation of a new sort of zero sum: the zero-rupee note. Distributed by a local NGO called 5th Pillar, the note is not legal tender; it is simply a piece of paper the colour of a 50-rupee note with a picture of Gandhi on it and a value of nothing. Its purpose is to shame corrupt officials into not demanding bribes.
According to Vijay Anand, the President of 5th Pillar, the idea was first conceived by an Indian physics professor at the University of Maryland, who, in his travels around India, realized how widespread bribery was and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the idea of printing zero-denomination notes and handing them out to officials whenever he was asked for kickbacks as a way to show his resistance.
Interestingly, the concept has proven to be somewhat effective, with reports that it has changed the behavior of corrupt public and private officials. Anand thinks the notes work because corrupt officials so rarely encounter resistance that they get scared when they do. And ordinary people are more willing to protest, since the notes have an organisation behind them and they do not feel on their own.
Whatever the reason of its success, the zero-note is a simple initiative that is helping to transform the social norms of a society where corruption is systematically endemic. It surely is something that Transparency International PNG, and particularly the PNG-based Business Against Corruption Alliance (BACA), should investigate as a possible grassroots campaign.