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Friday 7 December 2018
The Ones that Got Away
By Robert Barrington

Robert Barrington is Executive Director of the UK chapter of Transparency International. He is an authority on global corruption, corporate bribery and corruption within the UK, and has worked in academia and in the City.
In a world dominated by sense of pessimism about strongmen, populists, a Sino-Russian dominance of the foreign affairs agenda, and the prospects of losing hard-fought gains in the fight against corruption, it is worth remembering that only three years ago there was an unusual sense of optimism in the anti-corruption movement. It was an era in which UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State John Kerry made bold statements about the damage caused by corruption, and the need to turn words into action.


One of the manifestations of such optimism was the London Anti-Corruption Summit in May 2016. This Summit resulted in 648 pledges by 43 countries, in addition to another 69 by multilateral institutions, such as the IMF. It was a probably the largest set of coordinated anti-corruption commitments that has been produced in the past twenty-five years – or indeed ever. We can now see that as the high water mark of a short-lived golden era. Since then, the architects of this Summit have gone into various types of retirement, and both global and national politics have entered a new era.


In the run-up to May 2016, the British government convened many of the world’s leading thinkers from academia, civil society and within the civil service (notably few from business) to dream a little. Think big, they said: what should we be doing that would make a real difference?


Some ideas made it through to the Summit: like beneficial ownership transparency and open contracting. But some ideas did not. They were too big, or too politically difficult to land, or just too threatening to the established order. In this era of pessimism, it is interesting to look back at such ideas – not just in terms of what might have been, but also in terms of what still could be done. Here are six big ideas for tackling corruption in the twenty-first century:


1. A ‘Stern’ review on corruption


It was the early 2000s. The debate on climate change was stagnant. The scientists had done their stuff, but not enough people were convinced. What to do? The Blair government (much-maligned, but here is something it did well) commissioned economist Nicholas Stern to look at the problem from a different perspective. His report was ground-breaking, influential, and moved the debate into entirely new territory. He had no previous skin in the game, and therefore no obvious interest in producing a conclusion that pleased any particular party. And he managed to move the focus from the scientific niceties to the economic consequences. Could such an approach work for corruption? – and what would be the ground-breaking equivalent for corruption of putting an economic lens on climate change?


2. Anti-Money Laundering: total reform


An idea that seemed to be several steps too far in 2016, perhaps because there was less evidence of how much the global AML system was failing (now we have Danske, Deutschebank, etc.) and some of the system’s original architects were still very dominant in the debates. Two years on, there is a compelling case that the global AML system has passed its sell-by date: the UK government’s own statistics tell this story, yet the country still gets the highest rating from FATF. Cynics claim that there are too many vested interests, financially and in careers, for the system to be changeable; conspiracy theorists claim that the system was designed to fail, so it will never be changed; people who can add up cite the widely-used (source unknown) figure of $8 billion spent each year by the private sector on compliance, and conclude that the money could be better spent. Pretty much everyone is agreed that the foundation of the current systems – SARs/STRs – basically does not work. Conclusion: we badly need to have a new global AML system. But what does that look like in practice?


3. Prosecutions


This one is interesting, because there was an immediate coalescing around the problem (not enough prosecutions for corruption, resulting in a culture of impunity) but no sense at all of a solution. The best idea seemed to be that there should be a globally-accepted legal definition of grand corruption, which could then be put into relevant laws and treaties. At the Summit itself, Judge Mark Woolf was strongly trailing the International Corruption Court. Although the political climate is currently less favourable towards such grand and global ideas, sometimes the least-worst idea turns out to be the best one.


4. Rapid reaction


Every year, there are two or three big opportunities in countries around the world to advance the fight against corruption. These typically happen when there is a change of government, with the incomers having a genuine desire and mandate to change. Quite often – too often – those opportunities are missed. Could it be that at these inflection points, a concerted, coordinated and well-resourced international response would tip the scales in favour of decisive and effective action – whether asset seizures, holding corrupt individuals to account, embarking on a programme of short sharp shock anti-corruption reform, or introducing tamper-proof transparency mechanisms? It would be possible to put together a high-skilled rapid reaction team for such circumstances. What skills would it need, and who should house and deploy it?


5. UN Special Rapporteur on Corruption


In the twenty-five years of its substantive existence, the anti-corruption movement has learned much from the world of human rights. Reading the terms of reference; for the role and appointment of UN Special Rapporteurs, think how it might work if you substituted the word ‘corruption’ for ‘human rights’.


‘The system of Special Procedures is a central element of the United Nations human rights machinery and covers all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social…Special procedures are either an individual (called “Special Rapporteur” or “Independent Expert”) or a working group composed of five members….With the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Special Procedures undertake country visits; act on individual cases of alleged violations and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to states; conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations, contributing to the development of international human rights standards; engage in advocacy and raise public awareness; and provide advice for technical cooperation. Special Procedures report annually to the Human Rights Council and the majority of the mandates also report to the General Assembly.’


6. Global Corruption Fund


Another borrowed idea – this time from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria: ‘Founded in 2002, the Global Fund is a partnership between governments, civil society, the private sector and people affected by the diseases. The Global Fund raises and invests nearly US$4 billion a year to support programs run by local experts in countries and communities most in need…In 2000, AIDS, TB and malaria appeared to be unstoppable. In many countries, AIDS devastated an entire generation, leaving countless orphans and shattered communities. Malaria killed young children and pregnant women unable to protect themselves from mosquitoes or access life-saving medicine. TB unfairly afflicted the poor, as it had for millennia. The world fought back. As a partnership of governments, the private sector, civil society and people affected by the diseases, the Global Fund pooled the world’s resources to invest strategically in programs to end AIDS, TB and malaria as epidemics.’ The global fight against corruption is severely under-capitalised and dwarfed by the accumulated riches of those it is seeking to hold to account. There have been successes, but in 2018 corruption seems almost unstoppable: imagine what could be done with a global fund to fight corruption.


Transparency International has been fighting corruption around the world for a quarter of a century. As we turn 25 we’re asking what does corruption look like in today’s tumultuous world, and importantly how we can best fight it? For this blog series we’ve canvassed opinion from some of the leading voices in the anti-corruption world and will be sharing those here. Views expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Transparency International and where possible we encourage robust discussion and debate.


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