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Double harm when corruption meets discrimination

Voices from communities on a cycle of injustice

Illustration depicting various slogans: United Against Racism, Be You (rainbow flag), My Body My Rules, Trans Rights are Human Rights, Never Too Young To Change the World

Transparency International, illustrations courtesy of Andrea Fonseca

As the world attempts to move on from a pandemic that exposed many cracks in the status quo, conversations about social justice have taken centre stage. From movements like Black Lives Matter to calls for vaccine equality and universal healthcare, the mandate for the future has been collectively set – equality and justice for all.

But there are powerful forces working against this ambitious goal. Corruption and discrimination are both recognised as significant barriers to achieving an equal and inclusive future. Both have so far been considered separately.

A new study by Transparency International and the Equal Rights Trust changes that. In this first investigation into how corruption and discrimination interact, we listened to the experiences of corruption among people facing discrimination and uncovered some disturbing patterns.

Naming the problem

This report comes at a critical time. In 2015, all UN member states pledged to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals – a series of global commitments underpinned by the aim to “leave no one behind” – by 2030. The world now has less than ten years left to achieve these goals. Doing so means tackling the two interlinked drivers of inequality, corruption and discrimination.

This ground-breaking new report gives their combined impact a name: discriminatory corruption. It is the first snapshot of this kind of corruption around the world. We found compelling evidence that discrimination – whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation or belief – enables and fuels corruption, creating a vicious cycle that deepens inequality. And we did so by tuning into the stories and experiences of marginalised communities around the world.

A listening project

Despite the expertise of Transparency International and Equal Rights Trust as organisations committed to ending corruption and discrimination respectively, this study was designed as a collaborative listening and learning project. We relied on the knowledge of a large, informal network of dedicated individuals and organisations working, in their own unique ways, with affected communities.

Each case study was authored by or included stories from people who face adversity every day due to various aspects of their identities, from the Black community in the United Kingdom to women in Madagascar, and from young people in Papua New Guinea to Indigenous groups in Guatemala. Their courage in sharing their lived experiences of corruption and discrimination has allowed us to understand how the two injustices intersect to the detriment of our societies.

Discrimination and corruption – the vicious cycle

At the root of both discrimination and corruption is the abuse of power. We uncovered four main ways this plays out.

1. People who face discrimination are more exposed to corruption and exploitation

Corrupt and predatory actors can feel emboldened by the exclusion and lack of power certain communities already experience. We documented cases of this in Nigeria and Russia, where the criminalisation or stigmatisation of LGBTQI+ communities has made them easier targets for extortion by state officials.

Due to stigma against them in many countries, LGBTQI+ people are at a greater risk of becoming victims of coercive corruption. LGBTQI+ people are also often unable to challenge the discriminatory corruption they face as a result of the same reasons that make them vulnerable to it in the first place.

Corruption & discrimination impeding global LGBTQI+ equality

2. Certain types of corruption can be inherently discriminatory

This includes officials extorting sexual acts from women and girls in exchange for public services, or minority ethnic groups being blocked from receiving state resources or protection by officials. In these cases, corruption is being used a vehicle for continued discrimination against particular groups.

In our case study from Madagascar, for example, women police officers and medical students have spoken up about being coerced into sexual acts with senior staff under threat of otherwise having their careers obstructed.

3. People facing discrimination are hit hardest by corruption

Corruption is bad for society in general, but it does not affect everyone equally. Communities already deprived of opportunities because of discrimination have their positions worsened by corruption, further deepening inequality within our societies.

In Papua New Guinea, access to land operates according to social norms that discriminate on the basis of age and gender, resulting in the socio-economic marginalisation of young people whose plight is compounded by widespread corruption in the land sector.

The leaders are very busy in corruption, while the future leaders of this country are left to fend for themselves. Many of these young people have been pushed out by the system.
Zibie Wari Founder of the Tropical Gems youth group, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea

4. Discrimination blocks efforts to challenge corruption, while corruption can prevent victims of discrimination from pursuing justice

When a community is demonised or a person’s identity criminalised, it can be difficult to safely resist or report corruption. Corruption in the judicial or policing system can block fair investigations into discrimination cases. And when public officials are guilty of discrimination, potential whistleblowers may not trust the official reporting mechanisms.

In Guatemala, for instance, discrimination against the Xinka Indigenous community has thwarted their attempts to challenge corrupt land deals involving mining companies, while corruption is reported to have sabotaged at least one police investigation into racially motivated murders in the United Kingdom.

We were looked down on, made invisible and denied our rights. The state of Guatemala committed this great mistake, a great crime, by discriminating against the Xinka people.
Ever Donaldo Benito Benito President of the Xinka Indigenous Communities of Guatemala

How can we ensure a just and fair world?

Since corruption and discrimination are so deeply entangled, achieving a world free from corruption means fighting discrimination too. And to end discrimination, we must root out corrupt practices that lead to the unfair treatment of certain communities.

All these actions should start with listening to the experiences of those exposed to discrimination, and the solutions they propose.

  • Governments: introduce, implement and ensure anti-corruption and anti-discriminatory laws, and take concrete measures to address the links between corruption and discrimination
  • Civil society: come together to pool experiences, identify common problems and solutions, and enable collaborative research and advocacy
  • UN and other international or regional bodies: collaborate to better understand these two interlinked problems and set up monitoring and investigation bodies

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