“That was the time when I came face to face with corruption.”
Simon Eyork did not set out to become a whistleblower. He set out to build a proper school. But in the course of trying to obtain funding, this was what happened to this education chairperson from Papua New Guinea, whose fight against corruption took him from a day job in a primary school to a sting operation in the dead of night.
His story starts more than five years ago, when the government in Papua New Guinea announced new funds for school buildings. As chair of a school, Simon was more aware than most of how urgently the money was needed. Operating on a tight budget, his school had little money for structural improvements – existing buildings were falling into disrepair and new ones never got past the planning phase.
But the money never showed up. At first, Simon assumed there had been an administrative error. He made repeated visits to the authorities, asking about the delays. Each time, he was dismissed with the same excuses: the relevant officers weren’t in, come back tomorrow, come back next week.
For more than two years he chased the payments. Finally, it seemed like there was a breakthrough – he was contacted by people claiming to be officials, who said they would be able to release the funds. But there was a catch – he’d need to pay 30,000 Kina (US $13,300) in “processing fees”.
Unsure what to do, Simon called our advocacy and legal advice centre. “We helped him approach the police,” says Danny George, who took the call. Together, a plan was formed.
Under the cover of night, Simon set out to meet his unknown correspondents in a private hotel room, supposedly to deliver the bribe. In his pocket was the money that had been demanded by the “officials”. At the moment when he was handing over the cash, police stormed in and arrested them.
But his fight wasn’t over yet. “The investigations began, and then seemed to stall,” says Danny. “All the time the school was waiting for the money, depriving 1,700 students of basic education. So we helped him blow the story open to the media.”
Holding a press conference, we explained the case to the press – calling on the authorities to explain what had happened to the money. Working with broadcasters, we invited officials to discuss the case on radio talk shows. As other schools came forward to say they were also waiting for their money, support for the case grew quickly.
With the authorities under the glare of the media, Simon’s school got its 3.5 million Kina (US$1.5 million) of funding for infrastructure. Visit the site today, and you’ll see building projects underway. For its principal, who has since been awarded the Sir Anthony Siaguru Integrity Award by Transparency International Papua New Guinea, the effort was worth it. “The fight against corruption is long and tedious,” he told a local journalist, “but courage to do the right thing can see you through.”