News 23rd Dec 2015

The Year in Review

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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Related Publication

There is change in the air in the world of tackling corruption.  It’s not just that Transparency International has itself started to change  - for example, by inviting the public to vote on who should head a list of the world’s most corrupt individuals and institutions.  It’s also that a host of things have happened in the past year to indicate that the global approach to corruption might be about to undergo a significant shift.  Here’s a look both backwards and forwards to identify what has contributed to that – and what the future might hold.

2015: a new hope

It was a year of vibrant activity in the anti-corruption sphere, all over the world, in which political will, the ingredient that has hitherto been missing seemed suddenly to be there...


  • A year of scandals: FIFA, Petrobras, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak – on all continents, there were significant scandals that helped to reinforce public anger about corruption.
  • A year of changing governments: in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere, new governments were elected on an anti-corruption ticket – though we have still to see who will stick to their pledges.  In Guatemala, the President resigned in a corruption scandal.  The Commonwealth elected a new Secretary-General with an anti-corruption agenda.  In China…the jury’s out (see below – the Conundrum).
  • The UK’s Prime Minister, after celebrating election victory, declared that it was his new ‘mission’ to ‘begin a long battle against the corruption that threatens our security and prosperity across the world.’ 
  • A year of people power: the combination of outrageous corruption, open data and social media means that citizens are better informed than ever before.  Across the world, people are seeing corruption as unjust and unacceptable, and making their voices heard.  Governments and companies need to be alert to this.
  • A year of insecurity: as global instability mounted courtesy of Boko Haram, IS, the Taliban and others, the links became clearer between corruption and insecurity.  For example, as the FT reported, IS gains traction in Syria among the local population because ‘the group’s comparative efficiency and lack of corruption was repeatedly mentioned by residents during the jihadis’ takeover as a reason they were prepared to tolerate the group ; while Iraq’s army, which has been supported by billions of dollars of foreign aid yet failed to stand up to IS, contained 50,000 ghost soldiers on its rolls rather than being a genuine fighting force.
  • When the world adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, talk of corruption was nowhere to be seen. When the UK adopted the replacement Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, there was a goal on combatting corruption (number 16).  We have come a long way - and now have a framework for action. 

In the UK

  • A new Champion: in addition to a Prime Minister that is serious about corruption, the UK has a new Anti-Corruption Champion in Sir Eric Pickles.  He started well.  The government promised to deliver transparency over property ownership, tighten the country’s anti-money laundering loopholes, and look at introducing Unexplained Wealth Orders.  Next year will be a test of whether he can deliver on this early promise.
  • A newly-confident Serious Fraud Office: Bribery Act prosecutions, the first-ever DPA and the re-appointment of the Director; there is some confusion about roles in respect of the National Crime Agency, and the Home Office remains studiously unsupportive of the SFO, but it looks a very different SFO to four years ago.
  • Straw, Rifkind, Yeo – three MPs who disgraced parliament, yet were let off by the parliamentary authorities, showing yet again why political corruption remains one of the big areas in which the UK establishment is in denial about corruption.  But in Scotland, a new lobbying bill offers the opportunity for the country to show a lead to the rest of the UK.
  • Beneficial ownership transparency: legislation was passed to introduce a new public register, so we can all see who owns companies registered in the UK.  The UK's Achilles Heel remains its recalcitrant Overseas Territories. They made some reluctant progress, but not nearly enough.

2016: will the force awaken?

This could be the year in which the promises made in 2016 are turned into action. If all goes well, we could see a turning point in the global fight against corruption, with a focus on ending impunity, strengthening global anti-corruption institutions, cross-border cooperation and enforcement, daring to name and shame the corrupt, legislation to close current loopholes, and holding individuals to account...

  • It needs to be a year of implementation - of all those areas promised in 2015, including plans for SDG16, action on asset recovery and enforcement of current legislation.
  • A big focus will be the Prime Minister's Anti-Corruption Summit in May.  Can he really move the global agenda on this most sensitive of issues?  Here are five measures by which success can be judged:
    • The Summit attracts the right people - governments that are serious about change, and governments that can influence the global agenda as well as their domestic settings.
    • The right subjects are on the agenda - the Summit needs to be an ambitious attempt to change, and not simply encompass some minor administrative reforms on a limited number of subjects dressed up as major reform.
    • Clear commitments or 'deliverables' are reached - it's not just another talking shop with the same old men talking the same platitudes.
    • Business and civil society are on board - and there is an acknowledgement that the Summit is ultimately about the victims of corruption.
    • The UK gets its own house in order so that it can speak to others with experience and authority - and a certain humility.

 A conundrum that may reveal itself

China was notably upset that it slipped in the Corruption Perceptions Index, and some academics again questioned the methodology.  But in a year of some spectacular anti-corruption activity, the bizarre and politicised nature of China’s anti-corruption purge became ever more apparent.  Play golf or support the Dalai Lama?  That’s you done for corruption. The plain truth is that in a country which suppresses the conventional and social media, locks up journalists, harasses anti-corruption activists and has an entirely non-independent judiciary, it is both difficult to know what is really happening and difficult to believe that an anti-corruption drive is anything other than a political purge under a new name.  Perhaps the day will come when China's authorities address the serial corruption of Chinese companies operating overseas, for example in Africa.  That might give China credibility as a country that is serious about tackling corruption.

 TI research from 2015

My top five TI publications of the year from TI in the UK:

Corruption on your Doorstep: how corrupt capital is used to buy property in the UK 

Corporate Political Engagement Index: an assessment of the political activities of the UK's 40 largest companies 

Lifting the Lid on Lobbying: the hidden exercise of power and influence in the UK 

Don't Look, Won't Find: weaknesses in the supervision of the UK's anti-money laundering rules 

Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index - the MENA section highlighting the links between security, terrorism and defence procurement 

Remembering our colleagues

In many countries around the wold, those in civil society are under threat.  Sometimes it is harassment, sometimes it is physical threats, as in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Maldives, Montenegro, Venezuela and Yemen. Sometimes it is governments closing down the space for civil society to operate, as in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cambodia, Kenya, Kuwait and Russia.  I pay tribute to the courage and persistence of my colleagues working under such difficult conditions.