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Reflections on Anti-Corruption Reform Efforts in a Time of Pandemic

Corrupt behavior is not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, that’s my conclusion after having analyzed and implemented practical initiatives to fight corruption for more than 25 years across 40 countries. But, we need to persevere and continue to find new and creative approaches to make corruption fail.

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Corruption is engrained in human behavior, referenced extensively in ancient literature and still with us today despite many attempts over the years and in many countries to eliminate it. But do not give up hope! Over the past 25 years especially, a large number of efforts to reduce corrupt practices have been implemented under many different conditions and many of these efforts have shown promise.1

But another critical contextual factor has entered the equation this past year – the effects of COVID-19 on the rise of corrupt behaviors and the pandemic’s impacts on attempts to reduce corruption. On October 15, 2020, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement in which he made an urgent call for more robust systems of accountability, transparency, and integrity:

“Corruption is criminal, immoral, and the ultimate betrayal of public trust. It is even more damaging in times of crisis, as the world is experiencing now with the COVID-19 pandemic." Read More

The UN Secretary General offers some useful approaches to address the problem, but what does research tell us ought to work, especially under such difficult conditions? Here are two powerful tools.

1. Vigorous Oversight. It is important for corruptors and their victims to know that someone is watching them and that they will not be able to get away with their fraud and abuse. But this oversight needs to be real and pervasive, because corrupt officials have long figured out ways to avoid detection. If a substantial and integrated program is put in place incorporating continuous oversight, attempted corruption can be detected and stopped, and evidence of corruption can be collected and suspects indicted and convicted. Such a program would likely include activation and coordination among Inspectors General, external auditors, internal auditors, social auditors and citizen monitors, parliamentary overseers, ombudsman offices, complaints handling agencies, access to information commissions and whistleblowers.

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In our COVID-19 environment, such monitoring and oversight can play powerful preventive and enforcement roles if it is incorporated in a significant way from the very beginning in government planning for its pandemic response. Knowing that oversight has been beefed up and focused on the use of public funds can make potential corrupt officials think twice about pursuing their fraudulent activity. The oversight efforts will give citizens a greater sense of empowerment to stand up for their rights and report corruption threats. And detection of corrupt behaviors through monitoring and oversight can lead to legal action being taken against the corruptors.

2. Reinventing Government. Vigorous oversight efforts can try to put a stop to corrupt practices by creating negative incentives for corrupt officials, but a more positive approach to reducing corruption is to eliminate the opportunities for corrupt transactions to occur in the first place. Many countries have implemented programs to streamline and simplify their administrative procedures, specifically removing old or obsolete steps and requirements, and eliminating processes that facilitate government officials taking advantage of citizens seeking government services they are entitled to.

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To promote such simplification and streamlining of public sector procedures, the European Commission established the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Program (REFIT) in 2013 to guide participating countries to simplify laws and regulations, improve coordination between government agencies, and reduce overregulation that can lead to inconsistent and duplicative procedures that promote corrupt practices. The goals of REFIT are to speed up administrative procedures, decrease public expenditures and reduce opportunities for corruption in the public sector.

Earlier, in the United States, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) operated between 1993 and 2000 with the objectives of simplifying government processes to generate efficiencies in bureaucratic operations. To achieve this, NPR promoted deregulation initiatives and information technology solutions to reduce the size of the bureaucracy, generate administrative streamlining for those seeking public services, and reduce opportunities for corruption. These types of initiatives have had positive and documented impacts on speeding up and reducing the cost of public services, at the same time as reducing corrupt transactions in many countries.

In the pandemic environment, reenergizing such streamlining initiatives can be very useful in delivering health care services to citizens more efficiently, but only if the oversight mechanisms are also invigorated to make sure that corruptors don’t take advantage of the situation. One-stop shops and e-governance apps, for example, can be implemented rapidly to make testing more efficient and available, procure medical supplies quickly, and receive and deal with complaints about potential abuses of power.

A final thought on the “do no harm” principle while seeking to reduce corrupt behaviors. Citizens, investigative reporters and civil society organization (CSOs) that mobilize themselves to monitor, oversee and advocate for anti-corruption reforms put themselves in potential danger if they expose corruption or point at government agencies that abuse their authority. Implementing our programs over the past 25 years, we have experienced a few situations where active citizens and groups pursuing anti-corruption goals have been subjected to arrest, imprisonment and conviction as payback for their vigilant work to fight corruption in their countries. When tracking down and seeking to reduce corruption, it is critical for activists to get security training so they remain alert to potential dangers and do not put themselves into overly risky situations.

December 9th is designated by the United Nations as International Anti-Corruption Day, when many countries and groups around the world reinforce their pledges to fight this criminal phenomenon. From what I’ve learned over these many years, we need not only commit to continue fighting corruption, but we need to be more creative in our approaches to find more effective and sustainable ways to make corruption fail.

7 December 2020