Until recently, when someone paid taxes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the tax collector might have pocketed some of the money. One of the poorest countries in the world, the DRC is also one of the most corrupt: In one recent survey, 80% of citizens said that they’d paid a bribe or “given a gift” within the last year to get basic public services from the police, schools, health clinics, utilities, or to get an ID.
A new e-government platform is trying to change that culture by making government processes digital for the first time. The new platform, rather than a potentially corrupt official, calculates what someone owes in taxes or to register the birth of a child, and when someone makes a digital payment, they get a receipt on their mobile phone.
“Once you control the whole path from the taxpayer until the tax has indeed been paid in the bank, and that’s all digital and you can trace everything, you’re getting rid of this corruption and money disappearing on the way to the government bank account,” says Bjarte Karlsen, who works for Verditra, the Norweigan-based tech company that designed the platform, now part of a bigger project called eGov Africa.
Karlsen, who grew up in the Congo, says that corruption has long been an expected part of life. “Everyone kind of knows that in order to do something in Congo, almost at any level of the bureaucracy, you have to pay some money,” he says. Paying taxes, the first service offered by the new e-gov app, has been especially problematic. Transparency International, a nonprofit that fights corruption, reports that local and regional governments in the DRC require citizens to pay hundreds of different taxes (often for services that citizens never receive), and tax officials take some of the money for themselves. That means that the government doesn’t have the funds it needs to improve life for citizens, even though the tax rate is high.
When someone needs to pay taxes through the new system, they’ll go to a tax collector, who will use the digital platform to calculate the amount of tax owed automatically. The taxpayer using the service will get a text on their phone with the amount and a reference number, and then can pay through a mobile money service commonly used in the country or go to a bank. The reference number reconfirms the amount owed, and the person gets a receipt that they’ve paid. “This is about building confidence in both the system as well as the government, because now this person says, ‘Oh, this is exactly the same as I declared,'” says Karlsen. The process also takes minutes, whereas the process of negotiation in the past might have taken two days.
The company first started developing the service in the spring of 2018, launching the first phase of the service just weeks later; because the country had no digital services at all, it made it possible to move quickly. (The developers also used a low-code application platform, so a team without prior experience could build the platform.) It launched first with taxes and digital IDs for citizens and has been adding new services over time, from registering births to paying educational fees, with the goal to have apps for every government department integrated into one platform. “Every process you do within the government must be digital,” he says. “You can’t have any manual steps. Because once you have manual steps, it opens it up for corruption and negotiation.”
It’s only one piece of the solution, since there are also more fundamental challenges—officials often aren’t regularly paid, with the assumption that they’ll earn a living through corruption. “You have government officials in the bureaucracy that seldom get paid a salary, and then it becomes usual for everyone, as well as accepted for everyone, that they can accept so-called ‘administrative fees,'” Karlsen says. As a next step, the government will need to begin automatic salary payments for the first time, something that can also happen through the system.
It can’t solve every instance of corruption—for example, business owners frequently have to bribe the police in person to keep their businesses open. But it can begin to make broad changes. In the province where the platform launched first, the government’s revenues from taxes have steeply increased, and the government is now investing that money in projects like repaving roads. Other African countries have approached the team about creating a similar platform, and the team hopes to replicate the service elsewhere.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to accurately reflect Verditra’s home country.