A historic chance for the UN to address corruption
Given the scale of the COVID-19 response, the United Nations has an opportunity to take meaningful steps on countering corruption.
The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has generated an unprecedented level of spending, with more than $21 trillion committed to fighting the coronavirus so far, much of it falling under emergency measures that bypass bureaucratic hurdles and expedite the flow of funds. The speed and scale of this spending have created new opportunities for state-level corruption—ranging from fairly mundane examples, like demanding bribes for medical services, to more systemic forms of financial malfeasance, shady procurement practices, and opaque spending.
The pandemic has also drawn attention to the ways in which pervasive graft exacerbates inequality in development outcomes, within and between states. Given the scale of the COVID-19 response, the United Nations has an opportunity to take meaningful steps on countering corruption in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.
The U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is, in principle, a powerful tool for shared action on the most pressing development challenges in the world. Within that agenda, goal 16 specifically calls for inclusive governance and equitable access to justice, while setting out specific demands for member states to combat all forms of corruption.
Unfortunately, progress toward the SDGs has been slow and uneven, and the global financial downturn caused by the pandemic has worsened prospects that the world will meet the SDG benchmarks within the next nine years. In fact, corruption presents the most direct threat to achieving many of the most important goals set out in the 2030 agenda, costing the world trillions of dollars annually that could be spent on development.
In a recent report, a U.N. task force warned that the pandemic could widen inequality between states and push back the achievement of the SDGs by a decade. As the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir recently noted, the costs of the pandemic are being most directly borne by poor communities. And many experts have warned that corruption is worsening gender disparities, at a time when COVID-19 is already disproportionately affecting women and girls worldwide.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres clearly recognizes the risks that corruption poses during the pandemic. He has called for a strengthening of institutions to build greater transparency and accountability and to mitigate vast inequalities exacerbated by this crisis. Next month, the U.N. General Assembly will hold a special session dedicated to corruption, where the impacts of COVID-19 will be at the top of the agenda.
However, there is a risk that this session will go the way of previous special sessions, issuing broad political statements without teeth or merely pointing toward the need for more meetings. Indeed, given that many member states view corruption as a domestic issue to be handled by national authorities, the risk of a toothless process at the U.N. remains high. But this session could be different: It is the first to directly consider a resolution on anti-corruption, which could in turn influence the upcoming G-7 and G-20 summits later this summer.
Already, U.S. President Joe Biden has set an important example by taking a very public stance against corruption globally. During his first months in office, Biden’s administration has imposed travel bans on powerful foreign figures due to their corrupt practices abroad. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an initiative to honor anti-corruption champions. Samantha Power, the recently confirmed head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has publicly written about the importance of a robust anti-corruption policy. Washington’s efforts could help build traction toward a meaningful resolution in the special session on corruption at the U.N.
Still, there is no guarantee that the upcoming special session will move the needle. China and Russia have both made early submissions ahead of the June event that indicates they will focus on state sovereignty and seek to limit the mandate of the assembly on corruption. To ensure the international community makes progress on this critical issue, we identified five levels of action around the upcoming special session.
Corruption presents the most direct threat to achieving many of the most important SDGs, costing the world trillions of dollars annually that could be spent on development.
First, as a show of good faith in this process, the U.S. should utilize a voluntary national review of its own progress on SDG 16, looking at the transparency and accountability of American systems. This would create a strong platform to demand the same of other member states, and the humility of reflecting on America’s own domestic challenges will build trust with foreign governments.
To do this, the Biden administration might follow the leadership of partner countries like Denmark and Canada, which have pioneered national efforts to address both domestic and international components of SDG 16 and corruption specifically. The U.S. could also look at some of its allies’ federal agencies, such as Employment and Social Development Canada, which has a unit devoted specifically to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Second, the international community should look for opportunities to apply the terms of SDG 16 to the global COVID-19 response, specifically planning for a just recovery that reduces inequality while fighting corruption by improving transparency, openness, and reliability of national procurement and implementation. A potential General Assembly resolution at the special session should explicitly recognize anti-corruption as foundational to the wider objectives of the 2030 agenda and call for member states to promote those efforts. This will require enabling partnerships within the U.N. system. While the Office of Drugs and Crime is the U.N. body supporting the special session, other U.N. entities like the Commission on International Trade Law and the Office for Project Services can support the enabling environment.
Third, member states should work to ensure that the special session’s outcomes and objectives build on existing mechanisms for reporting on SDG 16. The need for such mechanisms is clear: High-quality data collection and accountability mechanisms are critical to the success of the 2030 agenda, but there is a long way to go on these fronts. For example, recent research from the Center for the Study of Corruption at Sussex University highlighted the limited extent of monitoring and evaluation systems in developing countries that would be necessary to promote accountability.
Fortunately, there are many excellent initiatives for the special session to highlight and promote. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a compendium that aggregates information on how institutions can use existing open data to prevent, detect, investigate, prosecute and reduce instances of corruption. Canada has led efforts to report on SDG progress through a Sustainable Development Goals Data Hub. Latvia’s National Action Plan on the SDGs is an example of positive efforts to increase transparency in budgetary processes.
Fourth, and as an extension of the special session’s focus on improved data, any resolution should include specific commitments on how to account for the potential implications, both positive and negative, of the use of technology to address corruption. Digital platforms associated with so-called smart city initiatives have come under scrutiny for potential invasions of privacy and excessive surveillance. However, technology can also empower user-led systems that place citizens’ access to information at the heart of the effort. For concrete steps, the special session’s resolution could align with the World Economic Forum’s Technology for Integrity platform. The U.N. Development Program is also leading an effort to harness technology in support of the Agenda 2030 framework and identify best practices from member states to harness new technologies in the fight against COVID-19. Increased access to technology must also be equitable, inclusive, and responsive to human rights concerns—including freedoms of speech and assembly.
Finally, other multilateral bodies, such as the G-20 and G-7, should be poised to build on a possible special session resolution at the U.N. by enhancing their own systems for collective action. They might build on the initial recommendations of a recent U.N. report, “Financial Integrity for Sustainable Development,” which has called for widespread systemic action on financial responsibility in response to the pandemic. G-20 members are well-positioned to implement the panel’s findings. Buy-in from these bodies will also reflect the necessary systems and structures in place to address longstanding impunity around corruption in the long term.
The current moment is one of the tremendous challenges: addressing corruption when it seems likely to spike due to the pandemic and the injection of new resources to combat it. However, there is also a significant opportunity for the U.N. to harness existing international commitments through the SDG agenda in support of domestic and international anti-corruption policies that meet the moment.