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Facing future corruption challenges — trends of the next decade

Anne Wrede

Transparency International has been leading the global fight against corruption for the past 26 years. To continue to do so in the future, it is now looking at upcoming challenges and opportunities. On the basis of an in-depth research project, this article identifies four major developments that will drive corruption over the next decade — understanding them will be key to addressing future challenges effectively. In a second article, we will explore new opportunities to fight corruption in the next years.

Speaking to corruption fighters and experts in the field, there are many reasons for concern when it comes to the developments that will shape corruption in the future. From the rise of populism to the disruptive force of technology, one thing seems clear: the world of (anti-)corruption will get messier. A small change in one area can trigger far-reaching change in other areas shaping corruption, and thus affect the fight against it.

Over the last six months, Firetail worked with Transparency International to investigate these trends. We spoke to campaigners, academics, leading governance and technology experts and those working at the frontline of the fight against corruption across the world. The future remains uncertain, but in its quest to stop corruption, Transparency International has to be ready for different future scenarios.

We identified four key challenges that will shape the world of (anti-) corruption in the future:

  • Growing pressure on freedom and democracy
  • Rising inequality and populism
  • Continued fragmentation of global power
  • Growing challenges of technology

Growing pressure on freedom and democracy

The last century has seen a decline of freedom across the world. According to research by Freedom House, only 44% of countries are now “free” based on the state of their political rights and civil liberties. More countries have experienced a decline in freedom than have experienced an improvement. Rule of law, freedom of expression and democratic electoral processes have been significantly challenged.

Figure: The state of freedom in the world (Source: Freedom House — Freedom in the World 2019)

As one Transparency International campaigner puts it: “the multi-party approach which has been better than anything else so far, has reached a stage where in most countries, it is being opposed”. If this trend continues, some experts suggest that we will be confronted with a world in which multi-party systems are neither the dominant modus operandi nor something that citizens see as something to aspire to. While not new, they point out that this tendency could threaten anti-corruption efforts by weakening democratic checks and balances which are crucial for public accountability.

The rich are getting richer. What about the rest?

The world is facing exceptional levels of inequality. In 2017, the richest 1% of the world owned 50% of global wealth. By 2030, this share of global wealth could grow to 64%, according to research by the UK House of Commons Library.

Many experts and practitioners that we consulted suggest that this rising inequality will lead to growing corruption risks, as they see it as contributing to unequal access to power and influence for private gain. In the long term, experts highlight that inequality may become deeply ingrained in government systems and further erode the rule of law.

Rising wealth inequality is also seen by many experts as a root cause for low levels of trust in governments. Edelman’s Trust Barometer finds that less than 50% of people trust their governments today. Some experts correlated the low levels of trust with the rise of populism: whilst populist leaders like to be seen as representatives of the people’s will in the fight against corrupt elites, research by Transparency International shows that this is often just rhetoric. Once in office, populists tend to expand corrupt practices significantly.

Diffuse power, contested power

1.8 billion people across the world currently live in fragile contexts facing conflict and violence, and the OECD expects this number to rise to 2.3 billion by 2030. Fragile states lack effective checks and balances and can be prone to corruption by those in power. Ushering integrity in those contexts will be very challenging since strong and stable institutions are lacking.

Figure: State Fragility in the World, 2019 (Source: Fund for Peace (2019) — Fragile State Index)

At the same time, the international community will experience new political power dynamics. As one expert puts it: “the undermining of the post-1945 structures will change some of the fundamental pieces of the chessboard”. Some believe that the decline of established multilateral institutions will erode global leadership. While countries that have historically pushed for stronger global anti-corruption policies, such as the United States, are turning inwards, no nation or institution is currently seen as filling the vacant leadership spot.

Tech — a wild card, not a silver bullet

Technology will continue to transform the world we live in — including corruption and its many forms. By 2022, 60% of the world’s GDP is forecast to be digitised. Already today, 7 of the 10 largest companies in the world are technology firms. A decade ago, only one tech company made the top-10 list.

Many in the anti-corruption community are excited by the new opportunities technology offers. But on a second look, they acknowledge that the impact of technology is a wild card. New technologies like Cryptocurrencies and Artificial Intelligence provide new routes to engage in corrupt behaviour. The vast amount of personal data stored online can be abused if exposed to the wrong people, and illicit financial flows are expected to grow, facilitated by ICT networks. Ultimately, new technologies will always be used both with corrupt intentions and by those fighting them. Anti-corruption organisations must keep learning and adapting if they want to use these technologies for their purposes effectively.

Can we rise to the challenges?

Looking at the state of the world and the trends that will drive corruption in the future, it is easy to get discouraged. These big trends suggest that the fight for integrity and accountability is going to be harder and more complex, and that it will require new approaches and new actors.

Since its establishment 26 years ago, Transparency International has seen many changes to the trends and developments in the field of global anti-corruption work. With a clear understanding of the drivers of corruption in the next decade, translated into regional and local contexts, Transparency International will be well placed to address the challenges of the future.

This is the first of two articles reflecting on future (anti-)corruption trends. In the second one, we will explore four reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming years. The articles are based on the key findings of an in-depth, participatory research project that strategy consulting firm Firetail conducted for Transparency International on the global fight against corruption. Anne Wrede is a consultant with extensive experience in strategy, evaluation and anti-corruption at Firetail.

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