A political approach to combatting corruption

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Commentary
A political approach to combatting corruption
For too long, corruption has been viewed as a secondary development issue. This is a mistake. Corruption is a security issue of the first degree. Dirty money and democracy don’t go together.

It's a big week for anti-corruption campaigners and democracy champions. World leaders are expected to make new anti-corruption pledges at the Summit for Democracy. The White House announced the new US strategy against corruption. And the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy, bringing together lawmakers from the US, UK and EU, had its first meeting. And today, Thursday 9 December, is International Anti-Corruption Day.

What these initiatives have in common is the understanding that the nature of corruption is transnational and political, and so should be the approach in combatting corruption.

In today’s globalized world, corrupt actors bribe across borders, harness the international financial system to stash illicit wealth abroad, and abuse democratic institutions to advance anti-democratic aims. Emerging research and investigative journalism projects such as the Pandora Papers have documented the extent to which legal and regulatory deficiencies in wealthy countries offer corrupt actors the means to offshore and launder illicit money. This dynamic in turn strengthens the hand of those autocratic leaders whose rule is predicated on the ability to co-opt and reward elites.

Successful anti-corruption interventions are unlikely to be those that promise simple solutions to often complex, deeply entrenched social, economic and political challenges. With vested interests and political careers at stake, tackling corruption is hard.

One of the most important reasons why anti-corruption efforts had limited effect over the last 30 years is that they have been state-centric, whereas corruption is a fundamentally transnational phenomenon. This is demonstrated well by the Pandora Papers.

In addition, for too long, combatting corruption has been treated as a matter of technocratic projects aimed at building the knowledge and skills of specialist stakeholders. But combatting corruption doesn’t work that way. It’s not about building capacity and expertise only. It’s mainly about changing the societal and legal environment. Changing the societal context means making it politically damaging for governments and politicians to hamper transparency of financial transactions. Changing the legal environment means making it legally untenable for real estate agents, accountants, financial advisers, lawyers or trusts to act as professional enablers of transnational corruption.

In some of our recent research, we’ve looked at how to rethink anti-corruption strategies. We’ve argued that contemporary anti-corruption reforms need to focus more on incentives and pressure points to ensure that acting against corruption becomes  politically unavoidable and necessary, or alternatively, that high political costs are generated if one abstains from acting against corruption. In other words, tackling the wicked problems of transnational and financially lucrative corruption requires a more political approach.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) has been supporting parliaments to undertake anti-corruption reforms, focusing specifically on their relationship with independent anti-corruption agencies and audit institutions, conducting robust oversight of government performance, and more recently strengthening transparency in the management of public debt in the context of the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donors in development assistance often default towards siloed and country-focused anti-corruption approaches, while missing out on global and regional approaches in accountability and anti-corruption assistance. It’s then encouraging that the new US anti-corruption strategy recognizes the need for building additional flexibility into anti-corruption initiatives and assistance efforts to respond to unexpected openings or backsliding, developing anti-corruption integration tools and resources for practitioners in technical sectors and re-evaluating the criteria for government-to-government assistance, including around transparency and accountability.

In a growing number of countries, parliamentarians take a lead role in setting new policies of accountability, initiating anti-bribery and anti-money laundering legislation, and advocating for transparency in campaign financing and for public registries on beneficial ownership. The most innovative parliamentary approach is the legislation on global Magnitsky sanctions against human rights violators and corrupt officials, thus ensuring freezing their bank accounts and banning them from entering the country. Is it possible, and indeed desirable, to do anti-corruption democratically?

The most recent initiative is the new cooperation between parliaments and parliamentary leaders from the US, UK and EU, through the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. The new parliamentary alliance will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy.

For too long, corruption has been viewed as a secondary development issue. This is a mistake. Corruption is a security issue of the first degree. Dirty money and democracy don’t go together. Democracy requires constant protection and is worth defending. We trust that this will be the legacy of the new anti-corruption pledges of the world’s political leaders at the Summit for Democracy.