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Anti-corruption heroes need help too

Maximilian Heywood

Major institutions are increasingly recognising the role that civil society organisations (CSOs) can play in supporting government accountability, but without the conditions in which to thrive, civic monitoring can be dangerous or downright impossible.

There’s a super-hero narrative about anti-corruption activists, that goes something like this:

Working from their kitchen table during the COVID-19 lock-down, the data expert of an anti-corruption organisation dives into emergency government spending data and starts digging into contracts. Bam! Almost immediately, question marks start appearing. They share information about suspicious deals with an investigative journalist for further digging. The highly suspect contracts are sent straight to the financial crime unit, copying in the national audit authority for good measure.

Within weeks, contracts have been cancelled, companies and individuals are under investigation, and public contracting systems have been strengthened.

Reality check: four key conditions needed for CSOs to support accountability

Encouraging as it is to see growing recognition of the role CSOs can play in supporting accountability, an overly stylised narrative like the one above risks overlooking the essential conditions that need to be in place for the story to hold true. Here, we take a look at four of those conditions.

The most basic, and obvious, is civil society space: can CSOs organise, participate and communicate as they seek to influence politics and society in their local context?

As the CIVICUS Monitor Map shows, already before the COVID-19 crisis just a small minority of countries were classified as "open", with a majority somewhere on a range where civil space goes from "narrowed" to "closed". Since then, CIVICUS have recorded dozens of new restrictions and attacks across the world, ranging from the detention of activists for disseminating critical information to overly broad emergency powers.

In many contexts, the immediate outcome for a CSO data expert of sharing corruption red flags with authorities could be that they get arrested or have their computer confiscated.

The second is the level of transparency of public information. While 117 countries had adopted comprehensive right to information laws by 2018, the availability of information in practice varies considerably.

The Open Budget Index, for instance, looks at the public's access to information on how the central government raises and spends public resources. As of 2019, nearly 75 per cent of the countries surveyed were not publishing sufficient information to support informed public debate on the budget. The most recent edition of the Global Open Data Index, meanwhile, found that just 11 per cent of datasets across 94 countries could be considered open.

Where the amount and quality of data is lacking, CSOs will struggle to carry out the analysis that can uncover potential cases of mismanagement and corruption or generate solid, evidence-based policy recommendations.

The third and perhaps most critical factor from an accountability perspective is the extent to which national authorities can respond to emerging signs of corruption. As leading international bodies such as UNODC have already noted, COVID-19 is directly affecting the ability of national supervisory and enforcement authorities to carry out their jobs.

Even before the crisis, official data from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) covering over 100 jurisdictions showed that no country has authorities considered to be highly effective in investigating and sanctioning money laundering activity with a majority rated as having low or moderate levels of effectiveness.

Lastly, there are the additional operational restrictions often faced by CSOs. Even where CSOs have staff with data and investigative skills in house, these resources may be tied to inflexible project funding that limits their ability to quickly refocus towards emerging threats and opportunities, or to rapidly scale up their responses. In many contexts, funding is also at risk of being cut, a threat also being faced by key allies such as investigative journalists.

None of this is to say that the expectations and hopes being placed on civil society are fundamentally misplaced. Anti-corruption and transparency CSOs play a hugely important role as watchdogs, experts, advocates, and more.

But CSOs need to be seen as players in a broader system. Any actor counting on them to support accountability processes should also be doing all they can to promote the enabling conditions that allow CSOs to do their jobs, as well as being valuable goals in themselves.

After all, even the most powerful superheroes usually find they need allies and a safe place to go back to after defeating the bad guys.

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