What’s Missing in the Fight Against Corruption?

The past 20 years of international efforts to curb corruption through reducing the openings for the misuse of public funds have led to the establishment of best practices in transparency and accountability, and the widespread creation of anti-corruption agencies within governments. These both have been important in promoting good governance around the globe. Still, the economic cost of corruption remains enormous. The annual cost of bribery alone, merely one subset of corruption, is estimated to be between US$1.5-2 trillion. And while new initiatives and projects are regularly undertaken to combat corruption, it remains stubbornly entrenched in government systems throughout the world.

On 18 September 2017 the Brookings Institution held an event, “Transparency, Anti-Corruption, and Sustainable Development: Is Progress Possible?to discuss new developments in how initiatives on open, participatory, and accountable governance can contribute to reducing corruption and achieving sustainable development. Co-hosted by the World Bank, International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Partnership for Transparency’s Anti-Corruption Forum, the event featured two panels of experts from international finance institutions (IFIs), civil society, and the private sector to discuss past and current challenges in transparency and anti-corruption work.

The first panel assessed the state of the global fight against corruption and emerging developments. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), delivered opening remarks on governance and corruption, highlighting the complex nature of the problem and emphasizing the importance of viewing corruption as both an economic and political problem.

Panelists and participants in the second session discussed corruption issues related to natural resource extraction and introduced two new research initiatives, one led by the World Bank and IFC, and the other led by Brookings and its partners, Results for Development and the Natural Resource Governance Institute. Both panels featured spirited discussions, with major IFIs such the World Bank and IMF coming under fire for not doing enough to combat corruption in governments of their member countries.

What Are We Missing in Anti-corruption Work?

Though the discussions featured a variety of different perspectives on the history and future of transparency and anti-corruption work, some common themes and ideas emerged, offering several key takeaways:

Transparency is not enough.

It has long been established that transparency alone is insufficient for successfully addressing the problem of corruption in countries. Several panelists expressed frustration about how countries with transparency initiatives and right to information laws on the books were still arresting activists and members of civil society. Oxfam’s Ian Gary referred to the political dimensions of transparency problems and the plethora of anti-corruption initiatives that are (sometimes willfully) ignored by governments as the “transparency industrial complex.”

It is clear that reforms to increase transparency and right to information laws must be accompanied by measures for strengthening citizens’ capacity to act upon the information made available to them, if such initiatives are to be effective in curbing corruption.

Tools to measure corruption are still lacking.

A major challenge in determining the efficacy of anti-corruption initiatives is the difficulty in quantifying corruption. Much of the discussion surrounding corruption is anecdotal, allowing governments and other actors to deny involvement and evade culpability. Current anti-corruption work tends to be theoretical and analytical, missing the importance of numbers and other data on the actual incidence of corruption. As a result, even as new and exciting anti-corruption projects are implemented, their success or failure is difficult to gauge. New methodologies are needed to quantify and analyze the problem of corruption to ensure best practices are being implemented to mitigate the issue.

Data must be open, accessible, and utilized effectively.

Arming the public with information that can be used to hold governments accountable is a critical part of mitigating corruption. Panelists from both sessions addressed the use (or lack thereof) of open data. An increasing amount of data is being made available by a growing number of actors across the globe, predominantly through online registries and open platforms. Many governments are on board with open data initiatives and make large data sets freely available to citizens. However, a gap exists between the availability of data and its use to fight corruption effectively. Disclosure of data alone is not enough; data must be available in machine-readable formats that allow for independent analysis by citizens and civil society.

Political context must not be disregarded.

Recognizing a country’s specific political and economic context is of paramount importance in the fight against corruption. Though it is useful to draw broad lessons from global anti-corruption work, recognizing that there is no single strategy to combat corruption effectively in every country is key. The role of civil society organizations in the fight against corruption at the country level is critical, as these organizations typically have intimate knowledge of their country’s political and economic climates and have a better understanding of the safest and most effective ways to engage in anti-corruption work. Civil society organizations can also serve as effective monitoring agents, holding governments accountable to their agreements. Still, because these organizations can mirror the societies in which they work, and in some cases be used to facilitate corruption, it is especially important that international actors are familiar with the political context of the countries where they work.

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