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The G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group must turn commitments into reality

Image: Constantin Stanciu/Shutterstock

M Emilia Berazategui

Global Advocacy Coordinator, Transparency International

It has been almost seven months since the Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG) of the G20 last met. Their silence during a period of immense global upheaval has been deafening.

The first ACWG meeting since February takes place this week, but it only serves to highlight a failure to provide leadership in the face of the most serious public health and economic crisis of the last century. This is surprising, because corruption often thrives during times of crisis, particularly when institutions and oversight are weak, and public trust is low.

Even in ordinary times, approximately 10-25 per cent of all money spent on procurement globally is lost to corruption. While corruption in the health sector causes losses of over US$500 billion every year, depriving people of critical services and life-saving medicines. It comes as no surprise that we have seen major corruption scandals linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in all regions of the world.

If the vast sums of money available to respond to the pandemic are to reach those who most need it, and not diverted into the bank accounts of the corrupt, we urgently need greater transparency and accountability from those taking decisions that affect us all.

There are at least four ways in which the ACWG could and should take action.

Improve coordination and cooperation within the G20

Civil society organisations have been calling on the G20 ACWG to step out of its silo and to consult with, and be consulted by, other G20 Working Groups in order to ensure that G20 High Level Pledges incorporate anti-corruption language.

During the COVID-19 pandemic at least two valuable opportunities to coordinate have been lost: the G20 Leaders’ statement and G20 Action Plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite dozens of media reports of crime and corruption related to COVID-19, none of these documents include clear or strong measures to ensure resources to tackle the virus reach those that need them the most.

The pandemic is a multi-dimensional crisis that requires a comprehensive and coordinated response. The ACWG is composed of anti-corruption experts who could help ensure that the G20's response includes the necessary measures to ensure that funds are used properly.

In particular, close coordination with the G20 finance track could help reduce the risk of resources being lost to corruption and mismanagement.

Although we are in the final stretch of the G20 2020 process, there are still important opportunities for the ACWG to collaborate with the other G20 working groups. In this regard, the October Meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Banks presents a unique opportunity. The ACWG should share with Finance Ministers concrete ideas to reduce the risk of corruption in the G20's response to the pandemic, including arguing for a specific budget line for anti-corruption, transparency and accountability measures.

Several corruption risks, one solution: Implementation

Since its creation in 2010, the ACWG has developed multiple resources covering areas such as asset recovery, asset disclosures by public officials, anonymous company ownership, conflicts of interest, open data, public procurement and effective protection of whistleblowers. All of these are key areas in order to reduce corruption risks in the COVID-19 crisis.

Civil society groups, including Transparency international, have worked to push the G20 to live up to their anti-corruption promises: from specific reports (here, here and here) to position papers and even public adverts. The implementation of these commitments remains, at best, inconsistent.

The world doesn’t need new commitments or more empty promises of implementation, countries must implement the anti-corruption commitments they have already adopted. Now is the time to act in order to ensure that funds reach those that need them the most.

Leave no one behind

As G20 countries share lessons learned and try to coordinate their action in order to tackle corruption, they must ensure sections of society are not left behind. In 2018, the ACWG committed to deepen its understanding and consider possible actions on the linkages between gender and corruption. There has been some progress but there remains much room for improvement.

A growing number of reports show that women are disproportionally impacted by COVID-19, both from a health and socio-economic standpoint. As corruption is likely to worsen gender disparities fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the G20 and its ACWG should adopt and implement specific measures in order to reduce the disproportionate impact that corruption has on women.

Since 2018, civil society has shared specific recommendations with the ACWG for how G20 countries can address the links between gender and corruption (here, here, here and here). Specific reports have been published (here, here and here) with disaggregated data on the impact that corruption has on women.

At a minimum, the ACWG should recognise sextortion as one of the main forms of corruption affecting women and commit to concrete action in this area. It should also recognise the need for gender-disaggregated information and ensure this is implemented.

Civil society organisations – valuable partners

While civil society and business representatives attend ACWG meetings, there is space for improvement in order to ensure meaningful engagement. Civil society organisations (CSOs) bring a set of unique skills to the table and, since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been a growing recognition of the role CSOs can play in supporting accountability.

Even before COVID-19, civil society faced challenges to perform their watchdog function. In recent months, the virus has provided an excuse to further restrict the space of civil society and attack its members. Just last week, the President of a G20 country stated his desire to ‘kill’ NGOs. This outrage elicited almost zero response from other G20 members.

Civil society organisations can play a key role in monitoring and tracking the use of COVID-19 funds, but they need to be acknowledged as playing a vital role in a broader system. The G20 should be doing all it can to promote the enabling conditions that allow civil society groups to do their jobs.

The world needs the G20 ACWG. If the Group decides to continue working in isolation and without taking concrete action to ensure that funds reach those who really need them, the anti-corruption community and people in G20 countries will have even more reason to question its effectiveness and purpose.

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