News 15th Feb 2019

Reflections on a decade in the fight against corruption and the coming challenges

Robert Barrington

Executive Director (former)

Robert served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2013 until July 2019. He is now Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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After eleven years at Transparency International UK, Robert Barrington will be moving on from his post as Executive Director to take up a role as Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice in September.  Here he reflects on some of the successes he has seen over the past decade, and future challenges for the anti-corruption movement.

When I joined the TI movement, it had recently finished its first decade; now it is celebrating its 25th birthday.  TI now operates in over one hundred countries, and in the UK has grown from being three permanent staff to a complement of fifty people.

The cast of characters has changed but most of the things which first made me think highly of TI have remained constant, and there are others I have discovered along the way: I am constantly impressed by TI’s accumulated anti-corruption expertise, and its commitment to evidence-based advocacy, which can be immensely powerful when well researched and well presented.  I still find it very striking that, unlike many NGOs, the global TI movement is fundamentally based on a network of independent national chapters – each chapter is locally formed, locally staffed, responsible for its own funding and comprises in-country experts.  That gives an unrivalled national-level expertise and credibility (as well as giving the coordinating Secretariat in Berlin a tough task to make the 100 chapters more than the sum of the parts).

Looking back on TI’s UK achievements specifically, there are four that stand out for me as having been really important:

  • The Bribery Act of 2010.  It was passed on the last day before parliament dissolved before the general election, and we very nearly did not get it across the line in the face of concerted business opposition.  Lots of people played a part, and many of those have said that TI’s role was critical.  TI’s campaign won an award, and the citation was ‘a fine example of a small organisation acting as the conscience of the nation.’  I am proud of that.
  • The London Anti-Corruption Summit of 2016.  There was a golden moment of global leadership from the UK and the US on tackling corruption, and it crystallised in the Summit – 648 commitments by 43 countries.  It was a government summit, but TI was front and centre in the planning, setting the ambitions and in securing the commitments.
  • Unexplained Wealth Orders in 2017.  If Harvard Business School is into writing case studies of perfect NGOs campaigns, this would be a top candidate.  TI’s research identified a problem, we convened a group of top legal minds to propose a solution, worked up the detail, built a group of allies, and found the perfect time to persuade the government to legislate.  We are now on the case the make sure that the enforcement matches the scale of the problem.
  • UK Anti-Corruption Strategy.  Before 2017, the UK had an aid and development strategy, a national security strategy, an organised crime strategy – in fact lots of strategies, but nothing on corruption.  There was initial resistance from No10 when TI put forward the idea, but in the end they were persuaded.  That means that the government has now made public commitments and can be held accountable for them.

I also feel extremely proud that the TI movement has granted the UK chapter the mandate to run two global programmes out of our London office: on Health, and Defence & Security.  These regularly feature as key sectors for corruption, and we have excellent teams dedicated to those very challenging problems.

And what of the future?  The new head of TI in the UK will be operating in a very unstable political and economic environment, and we can already predict some areas that will be particular challenges:

Crisis of democracy.  Trust in our democratic institutions is at a low ebb; parliament is held in low regard; across the world, there is a clear correlation between the strongman syndrome, the crisis in democracy and a rise in corruption.

Civil society space.  Corruption thrives when there is a lack of transparency and accountability.  Those who peddle corrupt narratives are quick to brand criticism as fake news; in many countries, they are quick to direct the organs of the state – security apparatus, law enforcement, judiciary, unchecked thuggery – against the media and civil society.  Even in the UK, there have been moves to close down free debate by charities.

Post-Brexit standards at a time of economic uncertainty.  The views of commentators and economists on the economic and societal health of post-Brexit Britain vary from a downturn blip to the apocalyptic.  Either way, it is not hard to envisage a scenario in which a country keen for exports waters down legislation such as the Bribery Act; there is under-investment in key institutions for accountability; a polarised politics degrades the public discourse and evidence-based policy making is replaced by loudly-shouted partisan opinions; inward investment from any source is welcomed with no questions asked; the UK’s standing in the world is diminished and there is a US-style withdrawal from global institutions and standards.

But the UK, and the world, need not be like that.  It is exactly why organisations like TI exist: to help make the world a better place, not a worse one.  The world we are entering will need TI like never before, and the great privilege of being the head of one of TI’s largest chapters, in the UK, is that you can help to make the right things happen.

My otherwise excellent colleagues in Comms suggested a truly appalling pun at this point: ‘As one chapter of my life comes to the end I am proud that that there are many more pages to be written of this particular TI chapter’.  But they are right, and one of the things I want to work hardest on in my final months is to make sure that TI’s funding is secure for the immediate future.  Like many NGOs, we live on a constant basis of financial insecurity, because we concentrate our funds on delivering our mission.  If you can help support us with a donation, please click here or contact [email protected].