Time for Anti-Corruption Champions to Look in the Mirror

The recent release of the Panama Papers confirmed the increasingly globalised nature of corruption and the entrenched international and offshore mechanisms through which the world’s political and financial elite funnel their wealth and often ill-gotten assets. Information covering decades of secret financial transactions are now in the public domain. It unleashed a global 'tsunami' of public reaction against all forms of corruption, including those implicated in the Panana Papers. It also highlighted the flaws and contradictions in the fight against corruption, resulting in tough questions for those who profess they fight corruption.

Quantifying corruption is almost impossible as so much corrupt activities take place unnoticed, undocumented and unpunished. But even before the release of the Panana Papers there was no shortage of evidence about the scale of global corruption. It is estimated that US$400 billion of public funds have been lost to corruption since Nigeria’s independence in 1960. According to a report by the ECA High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, published in 2015, it is estimated that Africa lost in excess of US$1 trillion in illicit financial flows over the past 50 years. This sum is roughly equivalent to all the official development assistance received by Africa during the same period. Currently, Africa is estimated to be losing more than US$50 billion annually to illicit financial flows. The numbers are staggering. 

Why then are we still surprised by the revelations of the Panana Papers and the seemingly endless acts of corruption being discovered daily in different parts of the world?

Pope Francis has called corruption “the gangrene of a people”, while others refer to it as a cancer eroding society’s morals, values and acceptable conduct, with far reaching social, economic and political consequences for future generations. It threatens the progress to be made towards major global milestones such as achieving the Global Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and undermines efforts aimed at strengthening good governance, peace and security around the world. It reinforces the already vicious poverty cycle in which millions find themselves, while the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.

On 12 May 2016, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, hosted an international anti-corruption summit in London. Although not a direct response to the release of the Panama Papers, no one could ignore the significance of what was discovered in those documents and the link to the issues which were discussed at the event. 

Attended by various world leaders and many key international stakeholders involved in anti-corruption efforts, the event resulted in a number of important commitments aimed at strengthening the fight against corruption. These include the recovery and return of assets stolen through corruption; greater transparency in the awarding of government contracts; the protection of whistleblowers; the sharing of tax information between countries; punishing those who facilitate tax evasion; the increased use of technology and data to crackdown on corruption; and combatting and eliminating corruption from sport. 

These are important commitments, and represent the promise of a new and expanded response to corruption. But given the scale and scope of global corruption, one needs to question why an event of this magnitude was not convened by the United Nations or another entity with the necessary moral authority and global reach. Too many of the delegates at the event represented institutions and countries directly implicated in global corruption. At the same time, many known transgressors were not present or invited.

Any response to corruption which doesn’t include the international community at large will not achieve the desired outcomes. Loopholes will remain, while voluntary commitments are increasingly meaningless. Corruption is like climate change, you either turn a blind eye pretending it doesn't exist, or fear the consequences of any further delays in mobilising a concerted global response to it. Corruption affects everyone, everywhere. The fight against corruption therefore requires a global response, similar to the response against climate change. The Paris Agreement, adopted on 12 December 2015, may have its shortcomings, but represents an all-inclusive response by the international community to the long-term challenges presented by climate change.

Charity starts at home, and the response by President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to Cameron’s comment before the anti-corruption summit, which described his country as 'fantastically corrupt', was spot on – no need for an apology, just act on the commitments which you made and help us repatriate stolen Nigerian assets stashed away in the United Kingdom (UK).

This response sums up some of the key discrepancies in the fight against corruption. Talk is cheap, and convening summits with lofty ideals and ambitious outcomes which don’t result in meaningful change only add to the problem.

Few will argue that the UK is 'fantastically corrupt', but if its financial institutions facilitate illicit financial transactions, tax havens under its jurisdiction operate without much regulation, the London property market benefits from corrupt activities conducted elsewhere or its government continues relationships with other corrupt governments given strategic national interests, then the difference between good and bad is less evident.

International commitments such as those made at the anti-corruption summit, or initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, Africa Peer Review Mechanism and others aimed at improving governance, transparency and accountability, and as a result, also the fight against corruption, provide a framework for the response required, but no guarantees for success.  

These commitments need to be complemented by concrete actions at the country level such as opening up government data in support of more accountable decision-making, introducing new legislation and revamping law enforcement efforts. In addition, increased support for public institutions with an anti-corruption mandate; civil society organisations exposing acts of corruption or promoting open contracting, access to information and budget transparency; and initiatives implementing codes of good practices and governance in the private and public sectors, is critical to this process.

Often a lack of capacity or resources prevent meaningful and sustained action. But more important, those signing agreements are often the ones most implicit in the persistence of corruption in their societies. Instead of providing the necessary political and moral leadership, public commitments to the fight against corruption are contradicted by the blatant disregard for the rule of law, lack of political will, and absence of any accountability for the consequences of these actions.

Fortunately, in the current age of digital information even the best secrets are no longer secret. There will be more leaks such as the Panana Papers, which will add to further public scrutiny of those named and shamed, as well as those who are not acting in line with their mandate and public commitments to the fight against corruption.

It is time for all anti-corruption champions - those who made commitments in London, or endorsed numerous other initiatives in the past with complementary objectives, or are in positions to affect change - to look in the mirror and ask some uncomfortable questions. There is need for serious introspection and brutal honesty about how their actions to date failed in addressing the scourge of corruption, and how these new commitments have to be implemented without fear or favour. It’s time to act. History will judge them harshly for any inaction.

- David Barnard is Vice-President: Africa at TechSoup.

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