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Keeping corruption on the global agenda

Transparency International Health Initiative

As the G20 leaders gather in Japan, GSK’s Nick Hirons and Robert Barrington of Transparency International UK ask what priority will be given to the challenging subject of corruption. This joint blog from the combined perspective of the private sector and civil society looks at how tackling corruption can help remove a major block to achieving Universal Health Coverage.

World leaders have many things on their minds at present; and so do citizens. For citizens, as we see daily in the media and social media, corruption is an issue high on the agenda. But how high on the agenda is corruption for the G20 leaders faced with challenges like global security, climate change and an increase in protectionism?

Many in Civil Society and the private sector are strongly committed to supporting realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the related goal of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Naturally, countries are at very different stages of health system development and the UN assumes each country will need to set its own priorities and timelines towards the SDGs and UHC.

Sadly, it is often said that one of the main barriers to achieving UHC is corruption. TI’s recent analysis of corruption as ‘The Ignored Pandemic’ reinforces this view. Notable examples include skewed contracting processes for medicines or equipment, falsified medicines making their way to patients, misuse of health budgets, opaque tendering and procurement resulting in substandard purchases and an expectation of bribes. It is a complex area but one that demands attention and action.

Ordinary people often feel powerless in the face of corruption; however, there is much that G20 leaders could be doing to improve the situation and remove corruption as a barrier to UHC. With corruption increasingly a transnational phenomenon, and all countries sensitive to not being disadvantaged by taking unilateral action, there are compelling reasons to act collectively in an international forum.

Here are four suggestions for commitments that could be made — or reinforced in cases where they have already been made:

  1. Introducing national Beneficial Ownership Registers, as valuable anti-corruption mechanisms and key enablers for investment, and making them widely accessible to all stakeholders. Helpfully, the G20 has already agreed this within its High Level Principles on Beneficial Ownership Transparency and last year the B20 made a specific call to all G20 countries to implement public registers.
  2. Adopting and properly enforcing appropriate anti-corruption laws that criminalise the bribery of foreign officials and so help to create a corruption-free level playing field for global trade.
  3. Implementing open contracting — and encouraging more companies to embrace open contracting by providing them with adequate reassurances regarding the protection of genuinely commercially sensitive information in public tenders. Here, the recently developed CGD Principles represent a valuable contribution to the debate.
  4. Routinely incorporating anti-corruption provisions in trade agreements to help drive global trade and investment.

Citizens expect a high level of integrity from those working in health care, and rightly so. The private sector itself has a responsibility for setting the right standards, for encouraging the reporting of misconduct and for taking firm action if misconduct is identified. G20 Governments can help support these efforts by creating a level playing field through fair and transparent processes and fair, effective law enforcement which, collectively, will also help address areas such as inappropriate sales practices and regulatory capture.

Much of this can be helped along by e-government solutions, as a means of reducing the opportunities for corrupt behaviour and backed up by more effective whistleblower protection.

For the first time in G20 history, the Finance and Health Ministers are having a joint meeting. That is a positive — and extremely welcome — sign that some G20 working groups are starting to work effectively together, and offers the Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG) an opportunity to break some historical siloes. Our hope is that G20 working groups can discuss the challenges and solutions in partnership and that, with the support of the private sector and civil society, tangible progress can be made.

Since 2010 the G20 has adopted more than 60 anti-corruption resolutions, reflecting an important focus on this area. Indeed, several G20 leaders have recently come to power with a specific anti-corruption agenda. As such, this year’s Summit gives the G20 an opportunity to announce on the global stage that together they will drive transnational action to reduce corruption with visible results — turning words into action.

Such action will not secure UHC by itself; but tackling corruption in ways like this, which benefit both governments and business, will undoubtedly help reduce corruption as an obstacle to UHC and improve the lives of ordinary people. In taking such action, G20 governments should remember that there are allies in civil society and the private sector with expertise, resources, and the will to help turn commitments into reality.

Nick Hirons is Senior Vice-President for Global Ethics and Compliance at GSK. Robert Barrington is Executive Director in the UK of Transparency International, whose G20 advocacy can be found here.

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