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Tracking corruption across the Sustainable Development Goals

Rubix cube on green background, which each small cube showing a different Sustainable Development Goal

Image: MintBlac / Shutterstock

Matthew Jenkins

I work as a Research and Knowledge Coordinator at Transparency International Secretariat. Opinions my own.

Given the well-established links between corruption and lower levels of peace, justice and equality, we’ve argued for a long time that anti-corruption must be central to the international community’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Where corruption plagues hospitals, progress towards targets on healthcare will be limited. Where corruption blights schools, targets on education are unlikely to be realised. Where corruption infests service delivery, goals on poverty eradication, clean water and affordable energy will be almost impossible to achieve.

Sustainable Development Goal 16, which focuses on peace, justice and inclusion, is the keystone of the 2030 Agenda. Without headway towards peaceful, just and inclusive societies, any progress towards the other sustainable development goals is likely to be fragmentary, short-lived and volatile.

That’s why it’s so important to track how quickly countries are progressing towards – or regressing away from – four ambitious anti-corruption targets set out under SDG 16:

  • SDG 16.4 Significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen recovery and return of stolen assets, and combat all forms of organised crime.
  • SDG 16.5 Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms.
  • SDG 16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.
  • SDG 16.10 Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.

Through the Voluntary National Review process, national governments are expected to mark their own homework when it comes to assessing their SDG efforts. National review exercises are supposed to be inclusive, and governments are encouraged to consult widely, including with civil society groups. Yet, simply providing technical expertise and channelling community voices into official review processes to call attention to inaccuracies or omissions is often insufficient to hold the powerful to account.

In a context of shrinking civic space, fewer and fewer governments are offering civil society organisations (CSOs) the opportunity to meaningfully participate in national reviews. Even where civic space is not under threat, official progress reports typically suffer from the fact that the global indicator framework developed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG) does not cover the letter or the spirit of the targets under SDG 16.

Not only is it unrealistic to expect that multidimensional targets for broad concepts like corruption can be captured by two indicators on bribery, as is the case for target 16.5, but in many countries the necessary data simply does not exist. This problem is particularly acute for politically sensitive targets like corruption, on which the reliability of official statistics may be open to question.

Transparency International’s independent assessments

In 2017, Transparency International developed a common methodology to enable its national chapters and other stakeholders to track their countries’ progress towards the four SDG 16 targets especially relevant for anti-corruption. Since then, over 45 national chapters have used the tool to produce spotlight reports that provide independent appraisals of their governments’ efforts to achieve SDG 16.

Recognising the problems inherent to the IAEG-SDG indicators, TI’s methodology intentionally deviates from the official indicator set, drawing on a wider range of alternative data sources to scrutinise the often uncritical assessments of national progress presented in government-led reporting. Going beyond the narrow understanding of corruption captured by the official global indicators, TI’s spotlight reports provide a more holistic assessment of the underlying conditions and drivers of corruption at national level.

The overall aim has been to produce evidence to supplement government reports submitted as part of the SDG monitoring process. Looking at both the quality of the legislative and institutional framework and its actual implementation, the tool is designed to develop actionable recommendations across a range of relevant policy areas, from anti-money laundering to whistleblowing.

Launch of new interactive SDG 16 data platform

Over the past four years, TI has collected a wealth of data as part of this exercise. Now, for the first time, this data is being made available in an interactive format, to allow the anti-corruption community easy access to an extensive repository of anti-corruption assessments from around the world.

Screenshot of the Hungary page of Transparency International's new interactive SDG 16 data platform

This has equipped us to identify common weaknesses, (anti-)corruption trends, and regional patterns. It also allows us to baseline progress from the first five years of SDG implementation and track whether governments make progress in improving their anti-corruption legal and policy frameworks over the next decade.

The research clearly demonstrates that governments need to do more to prioritise anti-corruption measures if they are to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Two areas of particular concern are political corruption and money laundering, both of which affect all countries in troubling ways.

Corruption in politics undermines democracy and the rule of law. When political parties accept illicit donations or buy votes, they are less likely to promote the public interest once in office. Undue influence over policy-making can prejudice decision-making at the highest levels, with potentially devastating effects on the equitable and transparent allocation of the very resources key to development. Corruption in politics invariably shifts politicians’ preferences towards the concerns of the rich and powerful to the detriment of poor and marginalised groups.

A range of existing policy instruments can be used to curb political corruption, including political and campaign finance regulations, income and asset declaration regimes, lobbying registers, cooling off periods, and legislative footprints. These need to be effectively implemented by competent and well-resourced oversight bodies, which is currently not the case.

When leaders act transparently, we can make informed choices when we vote, and we can hold them to account once elected.

Money laundering allows corruption to fund lives of luxury — often far from where the money was stolen. Secretive jurisdictions, opaque corporate structures, weak customer due diligence, and inadequate supervision of gatekeepers all play their part in facilitating large-scale corruption schemes that illicitly siphon off funds from cash-strapped state treasuries.

One of the key recommendations from our research calls on governments to establish a central register of beneficial ownership information with strong verification mechanisms, made publicly available in an open data format. This will help end the abuse of anonymous companies and other legal vehicles that facilitate cross-border corruption, preventing the diversion of critical resources needed to fund sustainable development.

Accelerating the implementation of SDG 16

The need for inclusive and accountable development has only grown more pressing since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Evidence emerging from around the world indicates that public resources are being diverted at various stages of the decision-making process to enrich corrupt officials and criminal organisations, rather than countering the hardship caused by the pandemic.

The virus is heightening risks of corruption diverting resources away from the most vulnerable groups, making it more urgent than ever to redouble our focus on curbing the impact corruption has on sustainable development.

Providing valuable data on the strength of national anti-corruption frameworks contributes to solving the enormous challenges we face by providing a more accurate and comprehensive picture of a country’s progress in tackling corruption. It is our hope that this wealth of data can continue to be used to identify the most urgently needed improvements, develop constructive recommendations, and ultimately reduce the effect corruption has on hindering the accomplishment of all the SDGs.

Track progress on SDG 16

Explore the data