There is no glitter, diva-like tantrums or brilliantly lit stages, but the emotions on show are no less genuine for that.
A Nepalese school principal, a Pakistani lab assistant and a Liberian janitor are among this year’s finalists in an international contest that aims to do for honesty in public office what primetime talent contests have achieved for aspiring pop stars.
Integrity Idol, a television show that began two years ago in Nepal, has expanded far beyond south Asia. Finals are impending in Liberia, Mali and, for the first time, Pakistan. Later this year, Morocco, Nigeria, Indonesia and Mexico will be added to the roster.
Typical contestants include Patrick Goffah, a janitor at Liberia’s education ministry, who was nominated for his work ethic and popularity among colleagues.
“A man of integrity is someone that people can rely on, who they can trust,” says Goffah, who is up against four other finalists.
“I think that integrity is about maintaining your conscience,” says another Liberian finalist, Sandra Roberts, who works as an HR director at the Ministry for Posts and Telecommunications. “You have principles that you don’t compromise on. You don’t bend the rules because it is a minister’s daughter or a minister’s relative.
“In my office they call me the rules woman. My boss says that I like a lot of rules, but I say that I like to play by the book. The book is our guiding principle. If we didn’t have rules and laws, then we would have chaos.”
The project, run by Accountability Lab, which develops ideas for accountability and transparency around the world, aims to inspire a new generation of public servants in countries that struggle with high levels of corruption. These include Liberia, Mali, Pakistan and Nepal, which were respectively ranked 83, 95, 117 and 130 in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index of 168 countries for 2015.
Selecting candidates for Integrity Idol involves local teams of volunteers gathering nominations from citizens, and the hosting of discussions about the need for public officials with integrity. Nominees are narrowed down to a final five in each country after scrutiny by an independent panel of experts. The finalists are then filmed and recorded for episodes that are broadcast on national television and radio for a week.
Citizens can vote by SMS or online. The winner in each country is crowned in a national ceremony in the capital.
Blair Glencorse, Accountability Lab’s executive director, says the initiative was effective in fighting corruption because it reframed the issue in a positive way. “It shifts the debate from people that embody problems to those that embody solutions, which is really powerful,” he adds. “This creates a lot of positive energy for reform, and it is also much more politically feasible than pointing fingers at wrongdoers.
“Among young people in particular we find it generates a lot of enthusiasm for change – and there is a huge amount of engagement. The first time we ran Integrity Idol, in 2014 in Nepal, we had 30 volunteers and around 10,000 votes, with episodes shown on a small TV network. This year, we have hundreds of volunteers across four countries, with hundreds of thousands of votes and millions of viewers on national TV channels.”
Dor Bikram Shrees, a principal who was named Nepal’s winner last week for transforming a school attended by children of low-income families into a model of good practice, said the award would encourage him to work even harder.
Fida Hussain, a laboratory technician at a state-run college in the district of Mardan, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, explained his reasons for working in the public sector. “There is a common perception in the minds of the public that government officers don’t work and they just get paid for nothing,” he says.
“I joined the civil services to change that perception through my honesty and diligence. I try my best to be useful in terms of my work and profession.”