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Grand corruption

Grand corruption is the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many. It typically has three main features:

A systematic or well-organised plan of action involving high-level public officials that causes serious harm, such as gross human rights violations.

Imagine: A doctor takes a bribe to move a patient up the waiting list. This is clearly corruption but petty corruption.

By contrast, when the health minister works with other public officials and unscrupulous companies to systematically divert resources from the country’s entire hospital system into their own pockets – that is grand corruption.

In this scenario, high level influence over the award of government contracts for the construction of new hospitals or new medical equipment may result in their being allocated to unqualified companies owned by the minister’s cronies. These companies may be allowed to inflate prices and channel some of the illicit gains back to corrupt ministry officials.

Oftentimes, these public officials even give the contract to a company of which they themselves are the beneficial owner; the majority of grand corruption cases include the use of anonymous shell companies to secretly move financial assets, according to the World Bank.

Through grand corruption, vast amounts of public money are systematically siphoned off to the accounts of a few powerful individuals, at the expense of citizens who should actually benefit. Financial institutions and other enablers assist those involved in laundering the proceeds.

When grand corruption and state capture happen, high-level officials may also use control over legislative and regulatory powers to legalise their activities and to weaken oversight and enforcement functions.

Typically, those involved in grand corruption benefit from impunity by interfering directly with the justice system and stymieing enforcement in order to thwart being held to account. Using the levers of state control, they may also suppress independent efforts by civil society and the media to investigate and expose corruption.

In extreme systems of grand corruption, “the whole of government has morphed into a criminal organisation bent on no other business than personal enrichment, and has retooled the crucial gears of state power to that end”.

Photo: Capturing the human heart /

How does it affect you?

If you live in a country with political leaders enriching themselves on public funds, this will affect your life on countless levels. Infrastructure, health care, education – all of these vital necessities, and many more, will be massively underfunded, depriving you of basic rights and services. It may even put lives at risk through products of inferior quality and poorly constructed facilities.

Grand corruption is a huge barrier to sustainable development. Even if you live in a country where grand corruption is not an issue, you should care – because sustainable development affects all of us. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a global effort towards a better future and the impact of grand corruption on them is far more destructive than from other forms of corruption. At the same time, less is being done about it.

Photo: Dustan Woodhouse /

Grand corruption also undermines civil and political rights so that citizens are denied rights to participation in political affairs and may see their due process rights curtailed.

The worst kleptocrats commit serious human rights abuses to enrich themselves and maintain power, through crimes including forced evictions, torture, illegal detention, assassinations, or the persecution of perceived dissidents or minority populations. In the most severe cases, this may amount to crimes against humanity.

What needs to be done?

In recent years, more and more states and international organisations have recognised grand corruption as the key governance issue of our times. To effectively fight grand corruption, we need to build on this consensus and consolidate an internationally recognised definition of grand corruption as a first step.

What are we doing?

  • We are developing a legal definition of grand corruption and advocating for its use as the basis for special criminal, civil and administrative law measures at national level, as well as for potential international structures to deal with the issue. This will enable enforcement outside the domestic justice system when it is “unable or unwilling” to provide access to justice for the victims to hold accountable all those involved in grand corruption.
  • We are campaigning for full transparency related to the beneficial owners of private companies. These are typically used to stash the ill-gotten gains of grand corruption abroad.
  • We are advocating for follow-up to grand corruption cases exposed by journalists as part of a strategic alliance called GACC
  • We are providing research to show how grand corruption deprives us of sustainable development and is associated with serious human rights violations

Submissions to UNCAC meetings:

Submission to OECD consultation:

An illustration showing a laundry machine which blends into a mansion with a businessperson pocketing the money next to it, and a detective following the trail of money coming out of the laundry machine

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