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Corruption risks in Southern Africa’s response to the coronavirus

Illustration of doctors and medical staff wearing surgical masks

As the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, Southern Africa reports more than 12,000 confirmed infections and more than 220 deaths across its 16 countries as of early May 2020.

While COVID-19 takes a greater hold across the region, concerns about the misuse of funds, particularly from international donors and development agencies, continues to grow.

To this end, six Southern African chapters from Transparency International as well as the Botswana Center for Public Integrity urged the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to accelerate governments’ response to the global pandemic and ensure that additional lives are not lost to corruption.

Four anti-corruption priorities for Southern Africa during COVID-19

Along with countries in Latin America and the Middle East, Southern African countries face serious corruption risks in addressing vulnerabilities across national health care systems.

As in other regions, public procurement, which plays an essential and often life-saving role in the response to the pandemic, also presents significant opportunities for corruption.

While procuring goods and services during an emergency response requires speed and decisive action, ensuring that the money goes to where it’s needed most is equally important.

To this end, our chapters in Southern Africa highlight four priority areas where governments should take action to combat corruption during COVID-19, including: public procurement, whistleblowing, free speech and press and development aid.

1. Public procurement

Given significant corruption risks in public procurement, governments should promote greater transparency through an open, online public procurement process. Governments must ensure that the details of public contracts, including the beneficial owner behind anonymous companies, as well as the cost, quality and delivery of services are trackable and responsive to the growing crisis.

In addition, more must be done to monitor, deter and act against individuals and companies involved in unfair trade practices, including price gouging and rigging of essential goods, such as surgical masks and medical gowns.

2. Whistleblowing

Governments should protect those who expose wrong-doing and prevent any forms of potential retaliation against whistleblowers.

3. Free speech and press

Government should protect freedom of the press and freedom of expression and encourage civic participation. In addition, governments should promote the exchange of factual, reliable health information over the spread of misinformation.

4. Development aid

Emergency funds provided by international donors and development agencies must include resources for oversight and accounting. In addition, the distribution of food aid during the pandemic should be equitable and not based on partisan politics. Moreover, governments should ensure proper auditing processes and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are in place to prevent the misuse of funds. Finally, governments should provide open, transparent and regular communication on the use of donor funds to the public.

Addressing risks in Zimbabwe and South Africa

In Zimbabwe, our chapter is working to empower citizens to speak out against corruption both during this health crisis and beyond. In a recent TV interview, Transparency International Zimbabwe discussed recent research it conducted about corruption risks in humanitarian aid and urged citizen’s to get in touch to report cases of corruption related to the coronavirus or other issues.

Similarly, in South Africa, our chapter, Corruption Watch, joined more than 100 national organisations in a call to action to unite government leaders and communities around several key COVID-19 recommendations, including greater transparency of information during the emergency response.

Reports of the politicisation and corruption of food aid in South Africa are also occurring. A local government official was recently accused of reserving food parcels for supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, while blocking attempts from other NGOs to distribute food aid. Similar allegations have been reported in provinces around the country.

Lessons from Ebola

While the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, this is not the first time countries in Africa are facing an international public health crisis. The Ebola outbreak from 2014 – 2016 in West Africa provides lessons about corruption to build on in the face of COVID-19.

While emergency funding is crucial to leveraging an effective response, the lack of transparency surrounding large transfers of money during the Ebola crisis highlighted large corruption vulnerabilities. The International Red Cross estimated the cost of corruption to the outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone to be more than US$6 million.

Moving forward: ensuring transparency across Southern Africa

Southern African countries are in a unique position to build on lessons from other countries and regions currently affected by COVID-19 and leverage previous experience in fighting Ebola to ensure that corruption doesn’t cost additional lives during the coronavirus crisis.

Taking stock of corruption risks before major disbursements of funding are made could save lives by ensuring funds are well spent.

To this end, national governments should, as far as possible, take into account reporting requirements at the outset of their response, with a particular emphasis on public procurement oversight.

Donor funding can also help ensure transparency during COVID-19. It is imperative that lending institutions prioritise transparency and accountability as they disburse emergency funds to help governments contain the outbreak as much as possible, and ultimately, save lives.

Image credit: iStock/elenabs

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