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COVID-19 – A test for business integrity?

Photo by Chris Davis on Unsplash

Britta Niemeyer

Global Business Integrity Programme Lead, Transparency International

The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on our societies and economies and has caused a devastating loss of life. Businesses, so critical in our response to the pandemic, are today facing threats that are more challenging than anything experienced before in modern times.

The crisis has shone a light on the role of and relationship between business and society. There has been a reassessment of how to define critical products and services, who are essential workers, how to ensure business continuity and deal with disrupted international supply chains. The pandemic has demonstrated that protecting public resources through transparent, fair public procurement processes as well as tackling illicit financial flows, are a matter of life and death. Both are closely linked to the level of business integrity implemented by business leaders and private sector actors, and are not the sole responsibility of the public sector.

True character is often revealed in times of crisis, and businesses will be judged on how they respond to this health and economic crisis over coming years. It is a test for business integrity. Those who pass will differentiate themselves as seldom before.

Illustration showing a public official looking out from a generic company building window. There is a black bar in front of their eyes, to illustrate an unknown owner.

"Transparency in company ownership is more than a technical solution to a problem. It is a matter of social justice."

Our petition to UNGASS 2021

Business integrity: A crucial element of the COVID-19 recovery

Businesses must take difficult decisions in this unprecedented environment and respond under pressure to ensure business continuity. A redirection of their supply chains might expose them to unknown levels of risk, for example by engaging with new third parties doing business on their behalf. With employees working from home and remote locations, it is challenging to counteract a temptation to circumvent controls and processes.

The experience of COVID-19 has also accelerated changing relationships between customers and businesses. Many more customers expect that the businesses they purchase from play a role in addressing and properly implementing anti-corruption measures for the common good.

The rise of networks around businesses, including customers, investors, government and society and their shared norms and values, is now firmly on the agenda. As outlined by the Davos Manifesto, a stakeholder-centric approach to capitalism and business operations has become more relevant, and more important, than ever.

Next week, the Davos Agenda is convening virtually to discuss innovative solutions for a resilient and fair COVID-19 recovery. Government, business and civil society leaders will share experiences from their local context and experiences, and we will hear calls for real and sustainable action to replace the many nice words that will be spoken.

A robust recovery cannot be achieved without business integrity. While many businesses have reached a level of maturity in their anti-corruption compliance programs, this crisis emphasises the importance of going further and faster, including digitalization to support compliance programmes. Too often, and for too many, business integrity has been a tick-the-box exercise. The pandemic has shown that this must go beyond simply meeting expectations and following rules, laws and regulations. It requires a strong, explicit, visible and active business leadership commitment.

Holding power to account

A highlight from the Davos Agenda will be the launch of the Great Reset Initiative, covering various pillars ranging from economic recovery to revitalising global cooperation and developing sustainable business models. The pandemic has enabled “a rare but narrow window of opportunity” to achieving a fairer, more sustainable and more transparent economy and society. To succeed, this requires strong collaboration.

Together with our network of national chapters, Transparency International will continue to constructively engage with businesses to promote integrity and to contribute to a resilient COVID-19 recovery. Business leaders have an opportunity to be owners, drivers, and an active part of the solution in order to embed integrity into business. Those that seize it will emerge stronger from this crisis.


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