“Integrity idol”

by Jess Smee

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

Igbolo Magdalene, a sociology lecturer at the University of Abuja in Nigeria, never saw herself as hero material - and much less as a potential reality tv star.

"I am basically camera shy. At work I keep my head down and do the tasks assigned to me,” she explained. "But now people call me ‘idol’ around the university and shout across the road that they’ve seen me on television or heard me on the radio.” 

Her life changed when she was nominated as an “Integrity Idol” on the reality tv show of the same name. The competition celebrates honest civil servants in a range of countries where corruption is rife, elevating them to national role models and giving them sudden celebrity status.

For Magdalene “keeping her head down” was braver than it sounds. It meant shrugging off a university culture of bribery and sleaze where it is not uncommon for students to pay for good grades, or even university certificates, either with cash or by sleeping with their professor.

"I didn't think I was an idol or a hero. I just stood my ground," she said, adding that her honesty put her in conflict with colleagues who pressured her to improve some students’ grades. "Being fair isn't easy. If you resist, you are viewed as sanctimonious; you are told you don't understand the system.”

While reality tv formats typically ramp up their viewer figures with exotic locations, b-list celebrities or powerful singing voices, Integrity Idol homes in on everyday heroes like doctors, government officials and teachers. And its focus on the prosaic has taken the show a long way. Accountability Lab, the Washington-based non-profit organisation behind the project estimates it has clocked up an audience of around 10- 15 million viewers.

The first Integrity Idol competition was held in Nepal four years ago and new versions were later rolled out in Pakistan, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria. A team is currently collecting nominations for a South African show, to air later this year, where it hits a nerve after Jacob Zuma’s reluctant exit from the top job amid long-standing corruption allegations.

To become an integrity idol, civil servants are nominated by colleagues. Following background checks, a panel of judges select five contestants. They are then filmed talking about their work and attitudes. Srijana Tiwari, a Nepalese Under Secretary, spoke frankly of how she sees her dedication to her job as a way towards deeper social reform. “If I work only for the sake of doing a job then who will help bring change?” she asked in a clip from the 2017 contest in Nepal. Tiwari spent years battling the mistreatment of Nepalese migrant workers abroad. And her persistence made waves: by highlighting the exploitation of Nepalese housemaids in Gulf countries, she helped spark a nation-wide ban in Nepal, stopping women from migrating to the region for domestic work.

And hers is one of many tales of quiet dedication unearthed by the programme. There is the Liberian nurse who helped patients during the Ebola crisis, sticking to her principles while others took bribes for medicine or beds. Or the Pakistani district education officer who walked some 20 miles a day to check rural teachers were showing up to teach local children - even though he hadn’t been paid for seven years.

“We wanted to celebrate ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” said Blair Glencorse, who heads Accountability Lab. “It is about making everyday heroes into national and international heroes.”

By creating role models he said he hoped to reactivate hope in place of the feeling of powerlessness which sets in when you live amid entrenched corruption. “People keep pointing fingers at politicians and thinking things will never change," Glencorse said, adding the show wants to emphasise the positive: "naming and  faming" rather than "naming and shaming”.

With corruption worldwide estimated to cost as much as five percent of global GDP (or US$2.6 trillion), the idols’ stories form rare beacons of hope against a backdrop of deeply ingrained bribery. Odeh Friday, who runs the Nigerian Integrity Idol, describes graft as “systematic and almost a norm,” explaining how “facilitation payments” are common practice across the board, even for every day tasks like renewing vehicle papers. Last year Nigeria slipped in Transparency International's corruption index, falling to position 148th out of 180 countries world wide.

But from behind her desk in the University of Abuja, Magdalene says that the show created a flicker of increased scrutiny. “After I was on the Integrity Idol, my head of department warned colleagues that, whatever they are doing, someone is watching them.”

Meanwhile, she said she had been congratulated by many students who have lost patience with the corrupt status quo. “They are unhappy. They suffer while the older generation enrich themselves. People are pocketing the money meant to build their schools, pay their teachers and buy their books,” she said. “Many students tell me I am a role model.”

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