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Reflections of an anti-corruption fighter — part I

Phil Mason

Every day of my 18 years in DFID working to advance our anti-corruption agenda had the feeling of trying to push water uphill — nothing ever quite looking to be going anywhere; every avenue fraught with resistance; everyone telling me I was on a hopeless mission. Sound familiar?

As I leave my public service career, my DFID colleagues asked me to look back over the nearly two decades of my anti-corruption work. Over the past month, I’ve delivered ten (generously labelled) ‘masterclasses’ on my experiences. In doing them, I am struck by how much we actually changed things, despite the daily sense of futility. The slow, incremental shifts in policy, attitudes and structures only come shining through when you look at the landscape from a decent perspective of time.

In the beginning: UNCAC

This first of what I hope will be regular pieces takes us back to the world of 2000 when I began my odyssey. To contrast what we then had to deal with to where we are today — still big challenges, of course — I would contend we’re in an immeasurably better place. Change does happen, even if it doesn’t seem like it through a daily or yearly lens.

Think back to when we had no common language to even talk about corruption. The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) may be weak in many ways, but before it was agreed in 2003 we faced three enormous obstacles to even having the conversation with others.

Firstly, what was corruption? Without a common script, my ‘corruption’ was someone else’s ‘cultural practice’. We couldn’t even converse on the problem. (UNCAC solves that, not with a definition, but by setting out the behaviours we all have agreed need to be addressed. At least we can now agree what the problems are.)

Secondly, was corruption actually harmful? At the time there were still many maintaining that it was an inevitable phenomenon essential for development, and that it ‘greased the wheels’. (UNCAC drew on emerging World Bank evidence to make it crystal clear, corruption was damaging to sustainable development.)

Thirdly, who was responsible? Developed countries would blame developing countries for having weak systems that allowed corruption to flourish. The latter would blame the former for facilitating illicit outflows by allowing our financial systems to absorb corruptly-acquired funds without scrutiny. So we simply threw bricks at each other. And corruption continued. (UNCAC solved this by making it clear, in a ‘grand bargain’, that both sides have responsibilities.)

There are no excuses anymore. Virtually every country has signed up to UNCAC. We all have the same script to follow. That basic achievement should not be underestimated.

Global Partners

In 2000, we also had incredibly low international co-operation for corruption-related acts. It was not unusual in those days for law enforcement to give up a case once it knew funds had moved beyond its borders. Few knew how to ask for mutual legal assistance. Now we have the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative and the International Centre for Asset Recovery that actively help cases proceed, helping some countries to write their very first formal request for mutual legal assistance.

The World Bank refused to get involved with corruption (‘that’s law enforcement, and political, and outside our remit’); the IMF also demurred (‘we’re in the business of economic stability; if tackling corruption destabilises things, that’s against our mandate’). Now we have the Fund embracing corruption in their annual Article IV consultations with every country in the world. The Bank still seems to find it hard — but perhaps that’s a reflection for another day.

UK leadership

In the UK in 2000, bribes were still tax deductible (and remained so until 2002). Our bribery legislation dated back to 1889, 1906 and 1916. There had never been a prosecution for bribery of an overseas official. Now, since 2011, we have a Bribery Act which the OECD has commended as being a global standard setter.

By 2019, the UK had the world’s first public register of beneficial ownership and draft legislation to extend the transparency principle to companies owning properties in the UK; a longstanding DFID-funded police unit to dedicate attention to outflows coming just from developing countries; Unexplained Wealth Orders in force; a corporate offence for facilitating tax evasion, not just from the UK but from any country in the world; and the world’s first commitment by a law enforcement body (the Serious Fraud Office) to secure from cases it handles compensation payments to go back to overseas ‘victims’ of bribery and corruption cases.

Looking ahead

That’s a huge transformation from a rather barren landscape in 2000. It’s all emerged slowly, incrementally. My point is not to suggest that all is done and dusted. It is that each of these achievements, building an edifice against corruption, can go unnoticed in the everyday ‘noise’. By taking a broader sweep, you start to see some tectonic shifts. It’s taken perseverance against the daily headwinds, and to keep true to the commitment to never give up.

It’s also been about the conviction that driving the plough forward just a little in my time has brought to someone, somewhere a little justice or prosperity where it had not existed before. For a corruption fighter, that is justification enough.

Phil Mason was senior anti-corruption adviser in DFID from 2000 until March 2019. He has formally retired from the UK public service after 35 years, 31 of which were with ODA/DFID. He continues in the anti-corruption field in an independent capacity.

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