By Joseph Veramu & Mariam Mathew
While the whole world looks hopefully ahead to 2021 as a year of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the theme for this year’s International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December, “Recover with Integrity” has a particular relevance for the Pacific region. In April this year, parts of the Pacific experienced a double crisis, with Cyclone Harold wreaking destruction in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga on top of the public health emergency. In addition to the economic disruption, tragic loss of life and widespread damage, the Category 5 storm and the virus have both created risks of further exploitation of governance systems which were already weak.
In the Pacific, as elsewhere, significant measures continue to be taken to respond to the immediate threat of COVID-19 and help lives and livelihoods recover in its aftermath. Several Pacific countries have declared a State of Emergency and created economic stimulus packages, and international aid in the form of funding and equipment has poured in to support governments implement their response plans and strengthen national health systems.
With these commendable efforts, however, comes a key challenge: limited transparency and accountability in government responses. There have been allegations of diversions of funds and limited adherence to proper procurement processes, which creates opportunities for bribery, kickbacks, and contract malfeasance. Without adequate access to information, and enough capacity of oversight mechanisms, it is difficult to verify or disprove these claims. In some countries, anti-corruption and right to information laws are in place – but enforcement and implementation of the policies that support them have been met with obstacles, including resource challenges and, at the root of it, limited political will.
Through a series of specific recommendations, civil society in some Pacific countries have put pressure on governments to become more transparent and accountable. But this pressure has not always been well received. State of Emergency powers have been used to narrow the space for civil society to play its vital role in combatting corruption and supporting sustainable development. Solomon Islands for example recently announced that it would ban Facebook, a key tool for engaging and sharing information with the public. There have also been concerns over limited press freedom in several countries. Under its State of Emergency declared earlier in the year, Vanuatu ruled in its official gazette that media outlets can only publish stories about COVID-19 if they get official authorisation.
Access to information is a human right and crucial for citizens to make important choices, particularly at a time of unprecedented crisis when the timely access to accurate information is literally a matter of life and death. Social and traditional media are also essential for allowing dialogue between citizens, especially young people, and duty bearers, so that policy can best be shaped to meet the most urgent needs of vulnerable populations.
At the beginning of this year, Pacific leaders adopted the ‘Teieniwa Vision’, which is a commitment of their collective efforts to tackle corruption in all levels of society. It recognises the importance of strong leadership and building political will to unite against corruption. However, this vision is yet to translate into bold deliberate collective action which would lead to a reduction of corruption rates across the region.
During the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting, key civil society groups are calling upon Pacific leaders to do five things.
- Prioritise the strengthening of national governance and integrity systems in order to tackle corruption and achieve greater impact with pandemic response measures, particularly for those most vulnerable.
- Review progress on the Teieniwa Vision and agree on key steps to strengthen action for greater government transparency and accountability.
- Urgently establish inclusive national processes for auditing state of emergency finances and procurement to date.
- Establish and adequately resource key oversight mechanisms in order to build capacity and let them function effectively.
- Last but not least, ensure freedom of expression, and press freedom across the region.
These measures would both empower citizens and protect essential resources from corruption and malfeasance, supporting the Pacific’s recovery and future sustainable development. Governments throughout the Pacific have a duty to turn vision into action.
Joseph Veramu is Executive Director of Civic Leaders for Clean Transactions (CLCT) Integrity Fiji. Mariam Mathew is Regional Advisor for the Pacific at Transparency International.
This blog article originally appeared in the Fiji Sun.