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If we want a less corrupt and more equitable world after the COVID-19 pandemic, we must plan for it

A neon light spells the word 'change' in Italic font

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has already forced many changes on our world and lives. These changes may be even more consequential when the crisis has ended. In fact, we may never return to the world we left behind before COVID, and that has huge implications for anti-corruption, governance and development.

Given the gravity and speed of the likely political, economic and social changes in the coming months, it is vital to reflect on the impact of these trends and to consider different potential outcomes that could serve as the basis for scenario planning or forward-looking strategic thinking. Our new report, Getting Ahead of the Curve, informs the debate in ten key areas of social, political and economic life – from reduced checks and balances to the role of big tech companies in our societies.

Whether the global economy and governance, domestic politics, the role of business and technology in our lives, or the relationship between citizens, the state and the market, many of the key trends of the pre-pandemic era are simply accelerating as a result of the health and economic crisis.

When faced with these extraordinary circumstances, governments have too often resorted to extreme measures, including increased surveillance, restrictions of the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and the closing of space for civil society, the media and whistleblowers.

If political actors, particularly in the executive branch, use the COVID-19 crisis to consolidate power, and cling on to this power as the pandemic subsides, checks and balances and the rule of law may be gravely endangered.

A suppression of civil and political rights as well as concentration of power in the executive branch makes it difficult for citizens, civil society and media, as well as accountability and oversight institutions such as courts, to mitigate corruption risks.

The crisis risks widening the gap in the quality of governance across the world. Human rights are more likely to be abused in countries with existing low adherence to human rights principles; state capacity is likely to weaken in states already weak, and checks and balances are likely to be further dismantled where they were already inadequate. Corruption will fuel, and be fueled, by these trends.

This though need not be our future, and two clear opportunities have emerged from the early days of the crisis.

Firstly, citizens and activists are increasingly able to use online tools to participate in public life and to organise. The wake-up call to citizens may be even stronger where it is most needed, and new technologies may facilitate better public action and engagement. Despite increased attempts at disinformation, pandemic may deepen awareness of the fact that access to good quality information isn’t just important, but in times of crisis it’s a matter of life and death.

Income inequality is likely to increase corruption, as rich and powerful elites capture political processes to their own benefits to protect their privileges.

Secondly, the current crisis also provides an opportunity to re-think basic concepts, such as the common good. It is increasingly evident that everyone should be entitled to basic support, including healthcare, employment support or basic income and even more basic needs such as guaranteed sick leave.

The assumption that companies are run to serve their shareholders is being seriously questioned. While the central role of digital services is making the case for greater regulation and a rethink on digital rights, data privacy and the role of big tech companies in democratic processes such as elections.

There is still great uncertainty, but if both these potential opportunities became reality, they would provide great momentum to anti-corruption efforts in the short and long term. Critically, they would greatly contribute to systems where power is exercised and held accountable to benefit societies rather than vested interests.

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