Integrity idol: Liberian reality TV show celebrates ethics

Story highlights

  • NGO-produced reality TV series promotes the best public servants
  • Show has spread from Nepal to Liberia and could be in eight countries next year

(CNN)A new reality TV craze is sweeping Liberia, with tens of thousands voting for their heroes and an intense debate surrounding their merits.

But the recipients of their votes are not singing ballads or performing stunts. They are checking school registers and fighting ebola.
Integrity Idol is a show with a purpose: to celebrate the honesty of the best public servants, while embarrassing the corruption of the worst.

Local heroes

The show, now in its second year in Liberia, is open to all government employees -- who make up the majority of the formal workforce.
The concept was created by NGO Accountability Lab, which first tested the formula in 2014 in Nepal, ranked among the world's most corrupt nations.
"We wondered what it would look like if we combined a popular reality TV show with the issues of accountability and integrity and celebrated honest government officials," says CEO Blair Glencorse. "The next day we sent out volunteers."
The group quickly secured thousands of nominations, and was able to put the leading candidates to a public vote on TV and radio that was broadcast to millions.
Nepalese civil servant Gyan Mani Nepal receives the inaugural Integrity Idol trophy for 2014.
Following this sudden success, Integrity Idol moved on to Liberia in 2015, and this year it debuts in Mali and Pakistan.
"It works because it captures the public imagination," says Glencorse. "Much of the conversation about corruption is negative (whereas) this conversation offers a sense of hope of a different reality that is very appealing."

Building momentum

Accountability Lab have worked hard to get the show off the ground in Liberia, dispatching volunteers to every county, where they comb government offices and tea shops for nominees.
From the nominations, the team curates a shortlist of around 40, which is then further narrowed to five finalists by an expert panel of judges. The NGO then visits the finalists and produces short films showcasing their work -- from the district education officer walking seven miles to work unpaid, to the court clerk who provides free water to his neighbors.
The final edits are currently underway ahead of broadcasting the final, which is expected to prove an even larger event than last year following intensive social media outreach and promotion through Liberian celebrities.
The 2015 winner, nurse Jugbeh Kekula, has become a celebrity herself.
"It is not easy now with everyone looking at you, but I am very happy to be an idol," she laughs. "It has changed my life. People look to me as an example."
"To me, integrity is to be who you are, and never being afraid to tell the truth."

Fighting corruption

Integrity Idol takes an approach of "faming, not shaming" -- celebrating integrity rather than attacking corruption directly.
This is partly as directly attacking powerful official would be dangerous, says Glencorse, but also represents a positive alternative to existing approaches that have delivered little progress in nations like Liberia.
"The more we can show that government officials can be celebrated for doing the right thing, the more it will help the public understand what they should expect from them," he says.
Finalists of Integrity Idol Liberia 2015.
Nominee Sandra Roberts believes the show can send a message to the elite, and is keen to make the point herself.
"I am a public servant not a politician but I believe that the same principles should apply to everyone with no exceptions," she says. "I want to fight for justice and accountability not only for us, but for the next generation. I think the competition is a good eye-opener on the importance of public service and will help the fight against corruption."

Next episodes

Accountability Lab is working towards lasting benefits. The NGO is creating a network of finalists and empowering them to work together on campaigns of public interest.
Integrity Idol also creates personal opportunities for its stars. Kekula will soon travel to Sweden for a professional development course via a meeting with the Swedish ambassador to Liberia -- a fan of the show.
Next year the show could be in as many as eight countries, with further plans for more localized and sector-specific competitions in existing countries.
The producers of American Idol may not be worried yet -- but the integrity bug is spreading.