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Vanuatu: Corruption worsening the impacts of COVID-19 and natural disasters

Former Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, who has recently been convicted of perjury.

Former Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, who has recently been convicted of perjury. (Image: ITU/R. Farrell)

Transparency Int'l

With a score of 43, Vanuatu remains stagnant on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), slipping three points from 2019. Highly vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters, the country was hit hardest by Cyclone Harold at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a shock to the governance system in a country already grappling with capacity challenges as well as political instability.

A history of instability

Since its independence in 1980, Vanuatu has been politically volatile, with frequent motions of no confidence filed against government. In fact, the former Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, who was in office from 2016 until April 2020, was the first to complete a full four-year term in more than a decade. His time in office, however, was not free from scandal. In December 2020 he was convicted of perjury and will be sentenced in February 2021.

This follows other high-profile court cases against members of parliament and former prime ministers. In 2015, Moana Carcasses, former Prime Minister and then-Deputy Prime Minister, and thirteen other MPs, including the speaker of parliament, were found guilty of giving and receiving corrupt payments. Another MP pleaded guilty before the trial.

Anti-corruption efforts

Although the ongoing political instability has contributed to the creation of a vulnerable environment rife with bribery, nepotism and misappropriation of funds, these high-profile cases have been praised internationally as representing a turning point for the country.

As Willie Tokon, CEO of Transparency International Vanuatu, says: “When we see state ministers and other elected leaders being held to account by the courts or the police, we know we are going in the right direction.”

Positively, in addition to clamping down on corruption in the public sector, the government of Vanuatu has taken steps to engage citizens in decision-making on public service delivery through its Decentralization Act and related policy. The aim is to improve efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, design and implementation to ensure a “bottom up” approach to priority-setting.

This has been accompanied by an increase in community education on Vanuatu’s constitution and citizens’ rights. While previously this was the domain of NGOs alone, the government of Vanuatu is now starting to dedicate time and resources to ensuring people understand their rights. This is partly through employing a dedicated Right to Information Officer, a sign of significant political will to drive meaningful change on corruption and transparency in Vanuatu.

The transparency, consultation and anti-corruption frameworks need, however, to be better implemented. This includes a Right to Information Act – whilst it was passed in 2016, there remain concerns that it comes with potential obstacles to the timely fulfilment of information requests.

A mixed outlook

Despite some positive signals, this remains a challenging time for Vanuatu. In November 2020, the government of Vanuatu announced an intention to disband the Ministry of Justice and Community Services in order to establish a Ministry of Fisheries. Vanuatu’s constitution stipulates a maximum number of ministries in relation to the number of MPs. To establish a new ministry, the government must first break up an existing ministry. Disbanding the justice ministry could cause significant disruption to various anti-corruption efforts, and hard-fought battles to prioritise certain issues would need to be won again.

In the midst of this, Vanuatu is also still recovering from last year’s Cyclone Harold, as well as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the World Risk Index once again named Vanuatu as the country most at risk of disasters, noting the vulnerability of Pacific Islands both to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. The instability and disruptions caused by these events exacerbate existing corruption risks. Additionally, funds intended for recovery and adaptation are often disbursed with limited transparency and risk being diverted into individuals' pockets.

Whilst there appears to be political will to address corruption risks and improve transparency and accountability, particularly in the public sector by engaging communities, it is crucial that the government of Vanuatu capitalises on this to drive anti-corruption initiatives forward in a consistent manner rather than taking one step forward and one step back.