News 12th Mar 2018

The Commonwealth’s future must have tackling corruption at its core

Maggie Murphy

Senior Global Advocacy Manager - Transparency International

Maggie Murphy is Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Transparency International (TI), the global movement against corruption. She leads the organisation’s advocacy efforts targeting international bodies such as the G20, G8 and OECD with a focus on closing loopholes in the international financial system to stem the flow of criminal and corrupt money and is a designated TI spokesperson. Prior to Joining Transparency International, she worked in human rights advocacy roles for Minority Rights Group International and Amnesty International, amongst others on issues ranging from ending torture to increasing political participation of marginalised groups. Maggie has worked in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Rwanda and Senegal. She holds a BA from Oxford University and an MSc from the London School of Economics.

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Today is International Commonwealth Day. It lands just 5 weeks before fifty-three Heads of Governments will descend in London for the Commonwealth Summit. On the agenda? Deciding what needs to happen to establish a future Commonwealth that is “more secure”, “fairer”, “more sustainable” and “more prosperous”.

It won’t be a surprise that at Transparency International we don’t think it’s possible to truly realise those ambitions without serious efforts to curtail corruption. Why?

  • Corruption kills. Opaque budgets and unquestioning secrecy provides a protective shield for corruption. This can lead to procured goods such as medical drugs or infrastructure projects such as bridges or factories that are overly costly – or shoddy and dangerous. In the most extreme case, defence and security budgets can be a honeypot for the corrupt. Ghost soldiers sit on budget lines but not in barracks and their salaries are creamed as cities such as Mosul in Iraq fall to terrorists.
  • Corruption is not fair. It disproportionally affects poor and marginalised communities who often have to pay for “free services” or stipend programmes for impoverished families. We receive many hundreds of complaints each year about victims unable to seek justice because perpetrators pay off the police or the courts.
  • Corruption threatens our collective future. Many of the Commonwealth’s member states are small island states at the mercy of superpowers’ carbon footprint. Climate finance funds worth US$100 billion/year established by richer countries to protect those countries are at risk of being syphoned off and rendered less effective if the proper anti-corruption controls are not put in place.
  • Corruption impedes global prosperity. Prosperity depends on a strong, corruption free financial system and an equal playing field for business. Innovation is suppressed when government contracts are opaquely awarded to secret bidders, investment is stifled when uncertainty is created in emerging markets, and markets are distorted when money is leaked and laundered through the global financial system and the corrupt operate with impunity.

This Commonwealth Summit is also different to others. In a post-Brexit world the UK will be keen to establish stronger relationships with Commonwealth countries with a view to potentially striking new trade deals. If done in a rush, there’s a big chance key anti-corruption safeguards will be forgotten.

So here are just a few things Commonwealth governments could do if they genuinely wish to establish a more secure, fairer, more sustainable and more prosperous future.

1. Close the door to corrupt cash

Secrecy in the financial system permits the corrupt and criminal to transfer money without trail and lead to impunity for perpetrators. Commonwealth countries should agree to end the cloak of anonymity that allows corrupt individuals to launder their cash across borders. This means requiring those in control or ownership of a legal entity to disclose that information publicly in company registers. Middlemen such as the banks, lawyers and accountants need to dramatically scale up their due diligence and oversight and countries that are at risk of receiving corrupt cash through their real estate sectors (such as Commonwealth countries Canada, the UK and Australia) should ramp up their oversight to make sure they are not complicit in theft of taxpayer cash from overseas.


2. Provide financial and technical assistance to the Small Island and Developing States.

It’s not particularly exciting and won’t be the centrepiece of a Commonwealth street party table but providing technical and financial support to poorer Commonwealth countries, for example in their governance and legal frameworks or within their procurement and auditing systems, will help get them to a position where citizens reap benefits, the country faces a more prosperous future – and as a nation they get set up for future trading agreements. In the Ukraine, ProZorro – a multi-stakeholder initiative revolutionized procurement systems – it levelled the playing field for business by digitizing and simplifying procedures and encouraging competition for contracts. Healthcare organisations saved an average of 35% – savings that can be passed back to the taxpayer.[1]


3. Adopt Commonwealth Trade and Transparency Principles

Governments could safeguard the integrity of future trade deals by establishing high-level principles requiring that every future deal incorporates key transparency, good governance and integrity safeguards. This way there will be less danger that accountability and integrity will be pawns in the rush to fix new deals and broker new relationships.

Finally, heads of government are good at going to Summits. They’re not too bad at making lots of exciting sounding pledges. But the Commonwealth Summit has to do more than provide a celebratory platform that make leaders look good. It has to do the boring bits too – and that includes setting up monitoring and implementation mechanisms – such as establishing Anti-Corruption Strategies, or channelling commitments into their Open Government Partnership Action Plans, to turn those promises into practice when the cameras have stopped rolling.