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The G20 and anti-corruption: time to heed the call

Image: M. W. Hunt / Shutterstock

M. Emilia Berazategui, profile photo
M. Emilia Berazategui

Global Advocacy Lead, Transparency International

If there was ever a year for the G20 to demonstrate its relevance and value to the world, it was 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the worst social, economic and health crises of the last hundred years. The need for coordinated multilateral leadership and action from the world’s richest and most powerful countries is more pressing than ever.

Over the weekend, the G20 leaders met in a virtual summit, and reached consensus on a Leaders’ Declaration through which they expressed their commitment to lead the world in shaping a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive post-COVID-19 era.

The document includes a specific Anti-Corruption paragraph that, while welcome recognition of the threat corruption poses, fails to address all corruption challenges, especially in the context of the current pandemic.

If G20 Leaders are serious about sparing no effort to ensure all people have equitable access to affordable, safe and effective COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, they need to start being more serious about tackling corruption. If we are to emerge out of the health and economic crisis stronger, transparency has to be at the heart of government vaccine purchase and distribution strategies.

This has been a complicated year for anti-corruption at the G20. Not least because this year’s host, Saudi Arabia, has an abysmal record on human rights, equality and independent civil society. All of which are fundamental to the fight against corruption. Together with hundreds of civil society organisations from around the world, Transparency International chose not to engage in the official Civil20, or C20, process this year. To have done so, would have legitimised Saudi Arabia’s record.

Irrespective of the host nation’s authoritarian government, anti-corruption discussions and the work of the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG) continued. For the first time in the 21-year history of the G20, there was a meeting of national ministers with responsibilities for preventing and combating corruption in G20 countries. This produced a Ministerial Communiqué with a Call to Action on Corruption and COVID-19. The ministers also endorsed High Level Principles for:

The Communiqué explicitly recognises the heightened risks and impacts of corruption arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministers committed to strengthen their anti-corruption engagement, “individually and collectively”.

Despite all the high level statements and initiatives adopted by the G20 since the outbreak of COVID-19, this was the first time that the group of leading industrialised nations recognised corruption risks linked to the pandemic. Now the challenge is for these risks to be acknowledge by other G20 tracks, especially Finance, and for the G20 to take concrete steps to address corruption risks.

G20 Ministers also committed to deliver and implement their previous commitments. That is encouraging, but even more encouraging would be to see G20 countries actually walking the talk. After all, since 2018 the G20 has repeatedly recognized the need to implement their previous commitments without actually doing so.

The Communiqué also includes a commitment to ensure that each G20 country has a national law to criminalize bribery, including bribery of foreign public officials. The ministers said they would bolster efforts to effectively prevent, detect, investigate, prosecute and sanction domestic and foreign bribery. This is particularly relevant as, more than 20 years after the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention was adopted, Transparency International’s recent Exporting Corruption report shows that nearly half of world exports come from countries that fail to punish foreign bribery - including half of the G20 countries.

A closer look at the Call to Action on Corruption and COVID-19

The heightened risk and impact of corruption associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting virtually all countries, including G20 members. So, it is worth taking a closer look at the G20’s Call to Action on Corruption and COVID-19.

The document recognises that corruption poses a threat not only to the immediate response to the pandemic, but also longer-term recovery efforts. It has three core areas of action:

  1. Promote transparency in the COVID-19 response
  2. Maintain sound governance and enhance oversight
  3. Foster integrity in the longer-term recovery

The document has all the right words but lacks concrete steps and a clear timeline for turning those words into actions.

The ministers’ committed to implement open data requirements, with an emphasis on the publication of data related to public procurement, extraordinary fiscal support to citizens and businesses, and the beneficial ownership of entities awarded contracts or receiving public support.

In other words, to transparency in the use of funds for the COVID-19 response and recovery.

They also committed to maintain and strengthen mechanisms for the prevention, identification and management of conflicts of interest, such as periodic interest and asset disclosure systems for public officials. This is in line with what civil society has been calling on governments and International Financial Institutions to do since early this year. It also fits with the anti-corruption measures some countries, including a G20 member country, committed to implement as part of their loans agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Commitments are only ever the first step the key is implementation.

We’ve analysed all countries currently receiving COVID-19 financial assistance and debt relief from the IMF to see which funds include specific anti-corruption measures and which don’t.

IMF COVID-19 anti-corruption tracker

In line with civil society recommendations (here, here and here), the G20 committed to maintain sufficient capacity and resourcing to empower anti-corruption authorities to fully execute anti-corruption policies. If implemented, this would help ensure that national authorities are sufficiently funded to perform their oversight duties, reducing the risk that resources for the COVID-19 response are not lost to corruption and actually reach those most in need.

The G20’s commitment to promote the active participation of civil society and media, and provide space for civil action and participation, is welcome. The G20 should be doing all it can to promote the enabling conditions that allow civil society groups to do their jobs.

We take promises and commitments seriously. That is why we are calling on the G20 to publicly report on the implementation of the Call to Action on Corruption and COVID-19 in 2021.

Gender and corruption: show a little ambition, fellas.

There is no reasonable justification for the G20's lack of action and ambition on gender and corruption.

In 2018, the G20 committed to deepen its understanding and consider action on the linkages between gender and corruption. Fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption is likely to worsen gender disparities, and progress on gender equality is at serious risk of being rolled back.

Yet G20 Ministers weakly stated that they only “welcome potential future work on topics such as gender and corruption”. This is the only mention to the word gender in the entire Ministerial Communique. The G20 Call to Action on Corruption and COVID-19 fails to mention it at all.

As a woman working in the fight against corruption and who recognises the value of the ACWG, I am deeply disappointed and, frankly, embarrassed by the lack of action and real commitment shown this year on gender and corruption. This is especially true when taking into account all the recommendations that civil society has published on this topic (here, here, here, here, here and here). Governments, including those of the G20, have to get serious about tackling the impacts of corruption on women.

The Anti-Corruption Working Group’s accountability report

There’s better news to report about how the ACWG reports on its own activities. This year the G20 ACWG adopted an approach to its own accountability report in line with civil society advocacy (see here and here). A more detailed overview of areas addressed by the ACWG in the past allows G20 countries to make better sense of the information, and includes more details of interesting initiatives.

We strongly encourage the ACWG to maintain this new approach for the upcoming accountability reports. It can even be strengthened by including the main challenges and issues that countries face when implementing their commitments. The report lacks focus on how effective measures have been and information on the linkages between themes. While the recently published report includes several mentions of Beneficial Ownership Transparency as an important prevention mechanism, it doesn’t mention the specific commitment G20 countries adopted in 2014.

Heed the call

This year, COVID-19 has meant that unprecedented sums of urgently needed resources have been disbursed to mitigate the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic. Correctly spent, these resources save lives and strengthen systems for the future. However, the evidence shows that corruption has also been able to flourish, undermining the response and recovery.  

The G20 has recognised the problem and issued a call to action. The question now is whether they will heed it?

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