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Why fighting corruption matters in times of COVID-19

Corruption Perceptions Index 2020: Research analysis

An illustration of four people wearing surgical caps and masks against a green background, reminiscent of a hospital

Illustration: United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

By Jon Vrushi and Roberto Martínez B. Kukutschka

Corruption and emergencies feed off each other, creating a vicious cycle of mismanagement and deeper crisis. The large sums of money required to deal with emergencies, the need for urgency in disbursing aid or economic stimulus packages and the risk of undue influence over policy responses form a perfect storm for corruption as they can increase opportunities for it to occur, while weakening the mechanisms in place to prevent it. This, in turn, undermines fair, efficient and equitable responses to crises. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world perfectly illustrates the need for integrity in the management of crises.

With the release of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2020, we looked at how corruption undermines states’ capacity to respond to emergencies such as the dual health and economic crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our analysis highlights that:

  • Corruption diverts funds from essential services such as healthcare, leaving countries around the world vulnerable and under-prepared to deal with public health crises;
  • A lack of transparency in the allocation of resources – a practice positively associated with corruption – weakens the efficiency of crisis responses;
  • Countries that perform poorly in controlling corruption tend to breach human rights and democratic norms in their management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our findings suggest that in an increasingly uncertain world, where emergencies abound, fighting corruption is key to ensuring better preparedness for crises responses. There are many strategies that governments can rely on to prevent corruption in the face of a crisis, but keeping corruption under control is much more difficult where robust anti-corruption mechanisms are not already in place. In such cases, corruption is likely to cripple the effectiveness of emergency responses.

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Corruption & underfunding of essential services

Where corruption is systematic, funds are often diverted from essential public services such as healthcare or education. COVID-19 has reminded us of the consequences of corruption on public service delivery and the harmful impact on people’s lives. A recent study from Transparency International’s Health Initiative brought together worldwide evidence of corruption at the point of service delivery during the pandemic, highlighting how it led to lower accessibility and quality of healthcare services. This has been particularly harmful for women both as patients and providers, and through gendered forms of corruption such as sextortion.

Many governments were unable to provide the necessary care to COVID-19 patients due to the long-term underfunding of the health system in their countries. Our research shows that even when accounting for a country’s level of economic development, where corruption is systematic governments tend to spend less on healthcare (see Appendix 1). The strong association between control of corruption and universal health coverage (see Figure 1) is not surprising.

Previous research from Transparency International's Health Initiative shows that efforts to achieve universal health coverage are significantly undermined by widespread corruption in frontline health-care service delivery. This is also confirmed by our statistical analysis (see Appendix 2), which shows that universal health coverage is not only determined by the level of expenditure on health or the number of health -workers in the country, but also by the overall levels of corruption. Hence, anti-corruption needs to be at the heart of any current and future strategies to broaden universal health coverage. The case of Zambia – one of the countries showing a statistically significant decline in its CPI score – illustrates this point. Since 2015, as the CPI started to indicate an increase in corruption in the country, access to healthcare started to shrink after almost ten years of continuous improvements.

Figure 1. CPI & Universal Health Coverage (2017)

Corruption, opaque government spending & mismanagement

A lack of transparency in the allocation of resources, a practice highly associated with corruption, weakens the efficiency of crisis responses. Figure 2 shows that countries performing poorly on the CPI also achieved low scores on the Open Budget Index, a composite indicator measuring budget transparency, oversight and the extent of public consultation in government spending.

Emergencies can serve as the perfect excuse to present transparency and anti-corruption measures as an obstacle to a quick and effective government response. Transparency, however, is key to the fair and efficient management of emergencies as it helps ensure that the resources reach their intended beneficiaries. Increased transparency and access to government information can help prevent situations like a case reported to Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) in the Democratic Republic of Congo: a group of nurses came forward to denounce that they were forced to work without pay for three months, despite the government’s claims that it had already allocated additional resources to fight the virus.

COVID-19 also confirmed the importance of transparency in public procurement processes and that no country is immune to corruption, particularly when dealing with emergencies. As reported earlier this year, the procurement of medicines and supplies in health systems is typically one of the most vulnerable areas for corruption. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), approximately 10-25 per cent of all money spent on procurement globally is lost to corruption. In the EU, 28 per cent of health-related corruption cases are related specifically to procurement of medical equipment. These figures relate to “normal” conditions and do not account for the billions of euros more in taxpayer money that were pumped into the economy or the increased difficulty of exercising adequate oversight.

The United Kingdom consistently features near the top of the CPI and other indicators of budget transparency and access to information such as the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Index. Yet, there were reports of serious corruption risks related to the procurement of healthcare materials and personal protective equipment. It was documented that the government purchased these goods from companies that had no prior experience in producing them, but which had close connections to the ruling party, either through political campaign contributions or family ties.

To prevent such situations and to guarantee the best value for money with the stretched resources available to handle emergency situations, it is vital to ensure more transparency in public procurement. While the normal processes might need to be speeded up to deal with the crisis at hand, certain anti-corruption checks need to remain in place to avoid risking the quality and effectiveness of the response. Some potential measures include: setting aside resources to conduct spot checks on the quality of goods and services, encouraging civil society and journalists to monitor procurement processes and announcing rigorous ex-post auditing of transactions that took place during the emergency.

Figure 2. CPI & Open Budget Index

Violation of human rights & democratic norms

Countries that perform poorly on the CPI appear to be more likely to violate human rights and democratic norms as part of their emergency responses. Two years ago, when launching CPI 2018, we made the case that corruption fuels a decline in democracy which facilitates further corruption. Recent research has also shown that countries around the world have violated democratic standards for emergency provisions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We found a familiar pattern in these violations: countries with higher levels of corruption tend to be the worst perpetrators of human rights and democratic standards breaches in the context of their response to COVID-19. This is only the most recent manifestation of corrupt regimes using emergency situations to further entrench their power, enabling them to maintain kleptocratic networks with impunity.

As shown in Figure 3, countries where the response to the COVID pandemic have resulted in “some” or “major” violations to democratic standards have, on average, CPI scores of 33 to 36 points. The Philippines, with a score of 34, is 11 points below the regional CPI average, and anti-corruption efforts appear to have stagnated since 2015. At the same time, the government’s response to COVID-19 is amongst the worst in terms of compliance with human rights and democratic norms. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Pandemic Backsliding Project, which captures the extent to which state responses to COVID-19 violate democratic standards, reports multiple violations against media freedom, infractions on non-derogable rights and violent enforcement of emergency rules by the police and the military.

It is worth noting that while countries with lower levels of corruption exhibited, on average, a more democratic handling of the pandemic, there are some exceptions. According to the same V-Dem data, Singapore, one of the top performers on the CPI, enacted discriminatory measures and restrictions on media freedom. In the case of the United States – which shows a downward trend on its CPI score since 2017 – the government’s response to the pandemic suffered from unclear time limits on some emergency measures, official disinformation campaigns and restrictions on media freedom.

Figure 3. CPI & democratic violations in COVID-19 response

Recommendations

COVID-19 showcased how corruption hinders the work of emergency responders and their efforts to help those who need it the most. It also highlighted the importance of measures that:

  1. Mainstream anti-corruption policies: transparency, accountability, integrity, and multi-stakeholder participation need to be integrated into all Covid-19 related programmes, plans, and policies. This includes conducting corruption risk analyses as part of wider health system strengthening assessments and national health planning exercises.
  2. Increase transparency in public contracting: this includes timely publication of contracting data in open format and their publication in centralised platforms, designing explicit rules and protocols for emergencies and ensuring they are enforced. It is also crucial to adequately document public contracting procedures during the crisis. Risk assessments can also prove useful to focus resources on areas or processes more vulnerable to corruption.
  3. Strengthen audit and oversight institutions: supreme audit institutions and anti-corruption agencies, wherever available, need to be independent and properly resourced to be able to perform their duties. Specific methodologies and technological tools that enable real-time auditing in emergencies must be rolled-out and activated when necessary. It might also be worth setting aside sufficient resources for ex-post audits of emergency funds and communicating the decision to conduct these as a way to deter potentially corrupt behaviour.
  4. Protect civic space: civil society organisations and journalists can be an additional check on corruption. Particularly during emergencies these groups can help monitor how funds are disbursed and whether aid reaches its intended beneficiaries.
  5. Enforce checks and balances: a robust system of checks and balances is a key systemic measure against corruption and any emergency powers assumed by the executive should follow best practice and due process, be proportional and respect time limits as well as fundamental human rights.

Controlling corruption is essential to ensuring a fair and efficient response to emergencies. As shown again by the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing corruption can be a matter of life of death. As many countries prepare to roll out vaccination campaigns against the virus, transparency around how such campaigns are designed and how the scarce number of vaccines are distributed will be essential. Increasing transparency in government spending, strengthening oversight institutions and protecting civic space can pave the way to fairer, more inclusive societies and better preparedness to the next global crisis.

Appendices

Appendix 1. OLS models for average government health expenditure (2012-2018) as dependent variable

Appendix 2. OLS models for average Universal Health Coverage (2012-2018) as dependent variable

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