For somebody who studied forestry and briefly worked as a ranger, the words – protection, conservation and development become a part of everyday lingo. It comes as no surprise that Narayan Adhikari chose to retain the core themes of protection, conservation and development but now focused on the public image of government service officials of the country. Accountability Lab works with the central idea of building a new generation of active citizens and responsible leaders. It supports change-makers to develop and implement positive ideas for integrity in their communities, unleashing positive social and economic change.   

The Integrity Idol

When there is so much negativity and poor imagery surrounding the civil service profession, Integrity Idol strives to bring forward those who remain untainted and unforgiving in their approach to work, the people who make us believe that work ethics, integrity and accountability still exist. These are the unsung heroes who still show us that there is hope in the system.

Perhaps their method and processes could be questioned, but Accountability Lab takes home the prize for the concept. It is the idea behind the Integrity Idol that  appeals because no one can discount the gravity of the cause that they have endorsed.

General public finger-pointing at civil servants is rampant. They have been named and shamed in the print, radio, TV and social media. And corruption continues to rise unabated. Yet there are those few who are honest and dedicated to their service. Accountability Lab’s annual awards program – Integrity Idol – champions accountability and integrity, traits considered to be rarity in today’s world. The initiative is to identify, award and highlight civil service officials who are on track working with dedication and finding creative solutions within the framework of government rules and regulations.

It cannot be that every single person has sold their soul to the devil and it was this very thought that propelled Adhikari and his team to organise the Integrity Idol. “Those invisible heroes and champions, reformists, who are performing their duties with honesty and innovation in their work delivery are also risk-takers in a way going against the norm yet without the parameters of rules and guidelines. And if there are such people, maybe we can find them, highlight them and create an alliance of integrity and that alliance of integrity will eventually work against the alliance of corruption,” says Adhikari about the germination of the idea behind Integrity Idol.

Just to gauge the popularity and how Integrity Idol has hit the right note with countries across the globe, Transparency International Sri Lanka will purchase the license to host Integrity Idol in Sri Lanka. Interesting to note is Transparency International hosts its own Integrity Awards. The common denominator between TI Integrity Awards and AL’s Integrity Idol is awarding individuals who endorse ‘integrity’ however that is as far as the similarity goes. Along with Nepal, Accountability Lab has various programmes running in Pakistan, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Blair Glencorse, the Co-Founder, lives in DC, and builds on their global connections.

The winners do not receive a cash prize; their award is the recognition of their years of dedication and their lifelong engagement in public service.

Often away from a situation or accepting it is a way of life can become a curse. So it is with corruption. We all know that it exists. We all have faced it at some level or the other. Yet a majority of us choose to remain silent.  Accountability Lab chose a creative mode – it chose to appreciate and celebrate honesty.

 Does Integrity Idol Function?

Defining integrity, honesty, accountability is a daunting task and equally colossal is the task to identify individuals who are decorated with such qualities. And then there are the questions: Can honesty and integrity be quantified? What if the awardees later prove to be corrupt? What if there are skeletons that remained in the closet? Adhikari says that they have an exhausting list of criteria, a panel of experts and the audience vote to help them. Moreover, he credits it to part luck and part proper selection process that in its five-year history of the Integrity Idol, no tragedy has befallen them.

Selection Process of Integrity Idol

There are five stages to the selection process: (1) Call for nomination, (Accountability Lab received 1300 nominations this year), (2) Filtration of the nominees (has to be a public officer with minimum five years experience or five years to remain in service), (3) Interviews (this is a process handled by the jury and this year’s jury members are Surya Nath Upadhyay, former head of CIA. Jeevan Prabha Lama, Director General at the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control and Punya Neupane, Head of Staff College), (4) Selection of Top 100 (there are 140 indicators on the basis of which this round of selection is made) and (5). Selection of Top 5 followed by Public Voting. However one person with the maximum votes is announced the Integrity Idol of the year.

Corruption and Accountability

Corruption infests and infects human beings to the core. “Corruption is pervasive. But in our context, it is not just about corruption. Lack of accountability dwells at the center of it,” briefs Adhikari.

“In the World Economic Forum’s 2014 survey of millennials, which Accountability Lab co-designed and implemented, it was reported that over 72% of respondents agreed that “corruption is causing lost opportunities for my generation”, and over 50% said they don’t feel they have the tools they need to fight corruption in their community. We believe that by helping citizens to positively shift values, create tools for accountability and build coalitions for change, we can improve the lives of millions of people,” explains Adhikari and adds, “How can we work positively, creatively so that people also feel good and take it as an incentive to work with honesty? For public servants, it’s not always easy either. They do not always earn good money, are able to send their kids to private schools or travel abroad. In addition is a loose system that encourages corruption. To work with honesty and integrity under such circumstances must be appreciated.”

The Corruption Perception Index 2017 released by Transparency International lists Nepal in 122 position along with Mali and Liberia. Nigeria is in 148 position.

For And With The Youth

Contrary to popular belief, according to the 59th annual report of the Public Service Commission, the number of applicants for civil service jobs in Nepal rose from 86,168 in the fiscal 2008-09 to 567,853 in the fiscal 2017-18. The lure of public service still holds ground for aspiring youth. “But even if young people fight for the civil service commission exams for job security and the perks that come with it, civil service is not the first career option of the youth. Civil service is shrouded by corruption, insincerity and incompetence,” opines Adhikari.

Youth, as defined by Adhikari, are individuals belonging to 16 to 29 age bracket. But the youth definition of Nepal has reached 40 years of age. UN limits it to 24 years. Accountability Lab claims to be a proponent of the contribution and involvement of the youth in the running of society, community and the country. To encourage, motivate and make their efforts productive is the mission statement of the Lab. It is not a one-day effort of Narayan Adhikari to transform youth into a force to reckon with. It is years of toiling with and for the youth that has put Adhikari on a pedestal to advocate for their needs, wants and desires. He claims that his passion has always been working with young people, supporting their ideas and innovations, and providing them with a platform and opportunities.

His initial collaboration was with Youth Initiative, a youth organisation, which was led by a friend. It worked to  involve youth in society and participate as decision-makers in local and political affairs. “I was also involved in anti-corruption movement through different youth networks,” states Adhikari. The second leg of his involvement with youth activities was in 2005 when he joined hands with friends to set up a Youth Resource Centre in 10 different parts of the country with library and internet facilities. “The idea was to create a space for young people to hang out, make friends, generate dialogues and conversations on social issues. To assist them to think creatively and host a venue for creative minds,” shares Adhikari.

Accountability Lab has worked with 13 fellows in all these years. They work with the integrity idols in government service.

Multiple Tasking

Accountability Lab has too many things going on for them. It is tantamount to having their tentacles spread in multiple places. It could be a good thing or not. On one hand, Adhikari expresses his grievances of not having ample resources and on the other, the non-profit company is involved in too many campaigns. At times, during my conversation with Adhikari, it appeared as if they have chewed more than they can swallow.

“We have Accountability Incubator – something like a business incubator for accountapreneurs or accountability entrepreneurs,” briefs Adhikari. They have supported 20 different ideas so far. The non-profit company provides accountapreneurs with a platform, resources, connects them with mentors, and also gives them seed money. The objective is to create a community of innovative people on building tools on ideas on accountability.

Another campaign is the Integrity fellowship where they invite young people to work with public servants every three months. “We do a public call and the youth approach us. In fact, this is something the youth proposed to us. It was they who told us ‘we don’t want to do internships in banks or INGOs, because all we will be doing is making photocopies. We really want to work with the government,’” briefs Adhikari. Integrity idol is about value-shifting campaign. Young people work with public servants who are honest, and that is how the value gets shifted.

The Integrity Fellows are Bachelor’s degree students and the Lab matches them with the idols. “For example, if a fellow works with a CDO, the fellow will learn how the CDO office operates, what is governance, how communication takes place, what is bureaucracy, government culture, young people will learn all these through observation,” explains Adhikari. And quickly adds, “However, just doing this is not enough, you need to develop the entrepreneurial mindset around accountability initiatives which comes through the accountability incubator.”

Adhikari further emphasises, “You need co-creation and collaboration with the community. If the ecosystem is not built, no matter how brilliant your idea is, it won’t last or it won’t have the desired impact”.

About global experiences, he shares, “South Africa liked our Incubator idea and proposed to do it there. They began to raise funds. And from this year they are also conducting the Accountability Incubator. In South Africa, they are connecting the Integrity Idol with the values propagated by Nelson Mandela. In fact, Nelson Mandela Foundation has invited them to conduct Integrity Idol in South Africa”.

Self Sufficiency is the Goal

“In the non-profit movement of Nepal what has been witnessed is that there is a lifecycle. First, you have lots of energy, young people come together, you put in your creative and enthusiastic juice, and funding comes, but not everybody is equipped to manage the scale. In our case, we were mostly passionate leaders, but not managers. And when leaders turn into managers, the dynamism, vision gets overshadowed and you then start wondering about how to manage money, people, work, and how to write reports and make the donor happy. Eventually the funding dries out, a gap exists and people’s interest dries out as well. Funding ruins things in a way. Providing funds is alright but how our social movements are promoted by it is questionable.”

Adhikari’s strongly suggests that he is not an advocate of surviving solely on donor funding. It is often necessary but the ultimate goal should be financial independence. This is why Accountability Lab grooms and invests in entrepreneurs who want to work in the field of accountability and become self-sustained. In 5-10 years, the Lab expects to have at least 100 accountapreneurs in varied fields of music, arts, technology and civic awareness.

The Beginnings

It begins as the typical story of two guys working in promising careers but dissatisfied with their jobs. Each of them wanted to do more and engage in something bigger. They wanted to be agents of change. This hunger brought them together and Accountability Lab was founded. Blair was frustrated with what he witnessed in the underdeveloped nations during his tenure with the World Bank and was toiling with the idea when his paths crossed with Adhikari.

“At that time, I was helping World Bank create an international network of young people against corruption. I was working as a South Asia representative. It was a massive network and the idea was to engage a lot of musicians, journalists and civil society activists. Using cultural and artistic artifacts as a means to promote accountability and transparency. World Bank operated this campaign. During the same time, I met Blair. He was frustrated and said that he was looking for people. I was frustrated and wanted to start something. He proposed that I join him as a co-founder and said, ‘let’s start something from Nepal’”… And which we did.”

Why It Matters?

According to Adhikari, the reason Accountability Lab matters is because there is corruption and chaos, fighting corruption is not always the solution rather building accountability is important. And the role of young people is critical to this.

Only tools, technology and programmes won’t reduce corruption, it is embedded in social and cultural values. To shift the cultural, social and individual values takes time. The most effective way is to work with the younger generation before they get entrenched in it.

Text: Ujeena Rana
Photos : Indepth Photography

This article first appeared in Business 360