The challenge of building trust amidst rampant fraud

Few scams are more detestable than those that involve fake drugs for major diseases, especially in poor countries. This week, the Mail and Guardian reported on the problem of counterfeit malaria medicines:

Some of the fake drugs contain artemisinin, but not enough to kill all the parasites in a child’s body. Not only will the child struggle to recover, but the parasites that survive may become resistant to the drug and spread a form of the disease that ACTs (artemisinin combination therapy) will no longer cure.

Such scams make an epidemic worse, hurt the people who use them, and erode already thin trust in the idea that medicines and public health schemes can improve individual- and collective well-being.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, the Daily Nation reported on mobile phone scams of a type that our Uwezo-evaluation research team heard about in various villages last summer. Because Kenya has a very sophisticated technology for transferring money via mobile phone accounts, fraudsters have sent fake SMS messages telling people they have won a prize, and tricked victims into transferring their own money.

We found that citizens were increasingly ignoring all unsolicited messages, assuming that none of them could be trusted. It would not be surprising if some followed suit by reducing their use of this wonderful technology for financial transactions.

In order for most new technologies to realize their potential for improving human well-being, they must be trusted by citizens within society. In the U.S., there’s not much threat to online banking because of the occasional unsolicited email from the Nigerian lottery commission. But where the use of internet- and bio-medical technologies are still in their infancy, similar scams have the potential to wreak substantial and lasting havoc.

Crowdsourced/web-based education monitoring in Kenya

According to the PovertyMattersBlog , the same crowdsourcing technology I posted about earlier — which allowed people in Kenya to track ethnic violence in 2008 — will now be used to monitor education and health service delivery in that country, and perhaps elsewhere in Africa. Or at least that’s the plan. According to the posting, one of Ushahidi’s partners is Twaweza — the same organization that has contracted my colleagues Dan Posner, Lily Tsai, and myself to study the Uwezo education initiative in Kenya (we are busy preparing for field research as I write…)

Crowdsourcing violence reports in Kenya

Lately, I have been really fascinated by the various uses of handheld technology in Africa, especially in Kenya — which is well-known for cellphone-based banking. But I just came across this project — maybe I’m the last one to hear about it — called Ushahidi (which means “witness” in Swahili), and they created a “crowdmap” of the ethnic violence that followed the 2007 Kenyan elections. Basically, Kenyans from across the country texted reports of violence from their cellphones or via email, and they created a pretty complete picture of where and on what scale the violence took place (Guardian).

Obviously, this is incredibly cool, and very powerful. One of Amartya Sen’s most widely cited observations concerns the ability of democracies to prevent famines from occurring because information and pressure flow freely from citizens to politicians. This type of tool really takes citizen information flow to the next level.

I do wonder, however, to what extent such a tool could be manipulated in the future. Is there any way of verifying the accuracy of individual reports?