With the realization that corruption is undermining development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), experts are lobbying the UN to adopt goals and targets on good governance and transparency in the post-2015 development agenda.
A high-level anti-corruption panel, co-chaired by UNDP, Transparency International and UNODC, gathered at the UN in New York in late September to highlight the impact of corruption on development and find ways to ensure that anti-corruption is part of the new global development agenda.
The eight MDGs - established in 2000 and set to expire in 2015 - saw the creation of ambitious targets to improve the lives of poor people, from goals on education and health to those on gender equality and the environment. But no mention was made of fighting corruption.
Yet corruption has an enormous impact on the health and welfare of the poor. Research by Transparency International shows that “in countries where there is more bribery, more women die during child birth and fewer children are in education, irrespective of how rich or poor a country is”.
Transparency International board chair Huguette Labelle said the organization’s research showed a direct correlation between bribery and maternal mortality. One study found that in places where 30 percent of 100,000 women had to pay bribes, 57 died in childbirth, and where 60 percent of 100,000 had to pay bribes, 482 women died. The organization has found a similar correlation between bribery and failures in the education sector.
Few dispute that corruption blocks entry to services, erodes the quality of those services, and redirects resources from the poor towards the elite. The thornier issue is what to do about it.
How should anti-corruption be incorporated into the post-2015 global development agenda? Should fighting corruption be a goal in itself? Should there be a framework to measure anti-corruption targets? Can corruption - or lack thereof - be measured at all? And where does accountability lie - at the domestic or international level? These were some of the difficult questions debated by the panel.
A sense of urgency
There is overwhelming support for the addition of anti-corruption objectives in the next global development agenda: the 1.3 million people who participated in a public consultation process on the new development priorities ranked the need for honest and responsible government third highest of all priorities, after education and health care.
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Yury Fedotov said at the panel: “In the General Assembly here in New York, we must make it clear that accountability and transparency are fundamental building blocks for achieving sustainable development outcomes.” He said there has been progress towards putting corruption on the agenda since the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) was adopted 10 years ago; there are now 168 state parties to the convention, all pledging to combat corruption in their governments.
More progress on global anti-corruption measures is expected at UNCAC’s fifth session in Panama City in November.
Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the need to find global measures to combat corruption and promote good governance had become even more urgent in the wake of the global financial crisis, which is widely said to have resulted from poor regulation, corruption and negligence.
She also pointed to the worrying “disconnect” in many developing countries between young people and their governments. Okonjo-Iweala cited the “youth bulge” - the fact that 60 percent of people are under 30 in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and beyond - and the unemployment problems facing this cohort. “These young people are seeing that poor governments and acts of corruption deprive their countries of resources and services and the ability to create jobs.” This, she said, was creating turmoil in countries unable or unwilling to tackle the problem.
International accountability needed
Many panelists stressed the need for international accountability, a topic that is often overlooked, but which enables domestic and international crime to flourish.
Okonjo-Iweala said that for the last 14 years, the Nigerian government has been trying to retrieve some US$200 million stashed in Liechtenstein during the regime of the late Sani Abacha, but had no powers to do so.
“Who is holding them [the banks and government officials concerned] accountable? No one,” she said. The US’s Dodd-Frank Act, legislation tightening regulations over the banking sector, was a step in the right direction, she added. But many argue that this complex law effectively renders banking more expensive for the poor.
Some panelists said there was a need for a new international framework to monitor corruption, but Okonjo-Iweala disagreed.
“It makes us feel good when we invent a framework, and then we think we’ve done it. We keep inventing and asking countries to join, but has this solved the problem? The answer is no,” she said. The key, instead, is to build up the institutions in developing countries that help implement government transparency and anti-corruption measures, she said.
Hugo Swire, minister of state for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stressed the need for measurement tools to gauge corruption and lack of transparency. He used as an example the MDGs’ ability to track how many people lived on $1.25 cents per day and to focus on concrete targets. Swire said that much progress had been made since the MDGs were formulated, when the “taboo of corruption was swept under the carpet”.
UNODC, together with other UN partners and civil society organizations like Transparency International, has trained 1,500 anti-corruption agents in 150 states, and was well-placed to find ways to measure transparency and accountability in government, UNODC’s Fedotov said.
Protecting development funds
Last year U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that one third of development aid never gets to its “final destination” because of corruption. The scale of corruption, particularly in weak and fragile states, is scaring many donors away.
Swire added that the public expectations about addressing corruption have “never been higher”. He also said the UK’s Bribery Act was leading the way in anti-corruption legislation and had facilitated the recovery of 100 million pounds of assets stolen from developing countries.
Heikki Eidsvoll Holmås, Norway’s international development minister, also stressed the central role of international transparency in stemming corrupt practices. As much as $1 trillion of illicit funds were being siphoned out of developing countries rather than being spent on them, he said.
Norway has been helping develop capacity of auditors-general in 24 African nations, and those efforts are paying off, he said, citing Uganda as an example. Uganda’s auditor-general uncovered the disappearance of 85 million Norwegian kroner from donors, which had since been recovered.
Holmås says Norway is taking an approach of “zero tolerance to corruption” rather than “zero tolerance to corruption risk”. In other words his country is prepared to invest in those nations where the corruption risk is high, even though it will not tolerate instances of corruption if and when they occur, he said, citing by way of example that Norway was helping Somalia to build up its financial systems, devastated after 20 years of civil war. “We are not just concerned with our development money but with all the money in the country,” he added.
UNDP has set up a new web portal www.anti-corruption.org for discussion on corruption and the global development agenda.