Today, there is broad agreement that corruption causes unacceptable harm and that failure to address it is irresponsible. Under pressure from civil society, which is composed of nongovernmental, nonprofit, and independent organizations, governments and international institutions have concluded anticorruption agreements and made other commitments to improve governance and accountability. The role of civil society will continue to be central to bringing those commitments to life, and the future of the anticorruption agenda will depend on creating deeper engagement of civil society and ensuring it has the technical capacity, financial resources, access to information, and protected political space to carry out its essential oversight and advocacy role. Nancy Boswell is a member of the Transparency International board of directors and president and chief executive officer of Transparency International-USA, the U.S. chapter. Transparency International is a network of civil society organizations in more than 90 countries, working with government, international institutions, and the private sector to reduce corruption and bribery.

In the early 1990s, citizen protests against corrupt governments and corporations sparked the beginning of the anticorruption movement. At that time, there was little understanding of the full extent of the damage caused by corruption and a tacit acceptance of its inevitability. Widespread understanding that corruption impedes development, distorts competition, denies the poor access to basic services, and creates risks for political and personal security is only fairly recent.

For example, after decades of denial, the World Bank, under the leadership of then-President James Wolfensohn, acknowledged that corruption is the “single greatest obstacle to economic and social development” and, thus, to reducing poverty. Today, the Bank’s current strategy on governance and anticorruption aptly describes the myriad of ways corruption damages the economy, political life, and particularly the poor:

On a daily basis, poor people around the world are unable to access health clinics, schools, or other essential services because their public systems are unresponsive or because they themselves cannot or will not pay bribes. Corruption and weak governance often mean that resources that should fuel economic growth and create opportunities for the poor to escape poverty instead enrich corrupt elites. In some cases, extremely poor governance and corruption have contributed to financial and economic collapse, public alienation, and even violence and failed states, with disastrous consequences for the poor.

Promoting Action on the Ground

With consensus on the damage caused by corruption, governments have undertaken a range of initiatives to improve governance. However, they have been slower to recognize and support the critical role of civil society in assuring that those initiatives achieve their objectives.

For example, governments in the Americas agreed to a regional anticorruption convention in 1996, but it was not until several years later, at the instigation of civil society organizations led by Transparency International, that parties to the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption agreed to a Follow-Up Mechanism to promote implementation. Since creation of the mechanism, civil society has pressed for ever broader opportunities to present its views and to engage with governments in promoting implementation. With those opportunities, it has provided a critical nongovernmental perspective and momentum for reform. Civil society has played a similar role in reviews of enforcement of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Convention on Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and of the anticorruption conventions of the Council of Europe and its Group of States Against Corruption.

It is clear from experience with this and other anticorruption conventions that civil society plays a key role in promoting action on the ground. The U.N. Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), with ratification by 80 countries to date, has tremendous potential to create a global as well as national framework for reform. Experience with other conventions makes clear, however, that UNCAC will require an effective follow up process to promote implementation. As Transparency International has pointed out in its recommendations to the Conference of States Parties, a critical component of such a process will be transparency and broad and reliable opportunities for civil society participation.

Securing Government Accountability

The World Bank and other development banks have been developing anticorruption strategies over the past several years and are coming to recognize the importance of civil society in demanding and securing governmental accountability. But, as banks, with governments as shareholders, they are struggling to find ways to engage more actively with civil society and to promote such engagement by the governments themselves. According to the bank’s current strategy, “[a] key cross-cutting priority is to help states become more transparent by facilitating great participation and oversight by civic organizations and the media. Citizens and media that have broad access to information on the operation of state institutions are crucial for holding the state to account.”

While this principle is indisputable and straightforward, transparency and opportunities for participation are still elusive in many countries. Moreover, the capacity of multilateral institutions is limited by the political will of its members. For example, the International Monetary Fund’s Code of Good Practices on Fiscal Transparency, or “Code,” appropriately states that publication of fiscal information, including on budgets and procurement, is an obligation of the government and should be timely and accessible. Yet, not all governments adhere to this practice and all retain the right, despite efforts to the contrary, to deny publication of reports on their compliance with the Code.

Notably, the Code recognizes that special attention to transparency is essential in the context of natural resources and the extractive industries as these areas are particularly prone to corruption. Nations rich in resources do not have to rely on the public for revenues, and, historically, those least receptive to notions of transparency and accountability have been among the poorest despite natural wealth. The Code’s call for “clear and transparent contractual arrangements” underscores the need for public oversight of governmental action, granting concessions, and other means of exploiting public assets.This principle underlies the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which seeks to increase transparency of payments and revenues from oil, gas, and mining. According to the United Kingdom, which launched the initiative in 2002, “increasing transparency and knowledge of revenues will empower citizens and institutions to hold governments to account. Mismanagement or diversion of funds away from sustainable development will become more difficult.”Underlying this and the growing range of anticorruption and transparency initiatives is the United Kingdom’s recognition that “the role of civil society will be critically important in terms of using the data disclosed to hold governments accountable for its expenditure.”

Fulfilling the Promise

However, although transparency and opportunity for civil society participation and oversight are essential, there is an assumption that, once achieved, civil society will have the capacity to carry out its vital functions. Despite extensive efforts to enhance governmental technical and financial capacity, similar efforts to support civil society, in the broadest sense, are, as yet, far from the scale required. Further action is needed in the following areas:

— Transparency of government functions, decision making, and expenditures; access to information, including unfettered Internet access; and opportunities for participation and comment must be institutionalized and routinely provided.

— Training is needed so that civil society, including civic organizations, professional associations, and the media, can make effective use of information.

— Training is also important to promote good governance, transparency, and accountability within civic organizations.

— Financial resources, without political strings, are essential to enable civil society to carry out its functions: gathering information, educating the public, building coalitions, and bringing to bear the requisite level of expertise to analyze information such as extractive revenues, national budgets, and public procurement.

— Responsible civil society organizations must be free to organize and speak out, without legal prohibitions restricting their capacity to operate or to secure funding from legitimate sources.

— Civil society activists engaged in oversight, including the media, must be protected from libel suits, threats of violence, and arrest.

Attention to these issues will help assure that civil society fulfills its promise. This is even more important in countries where entrenched vested interests—the corrupt, those who corrupt them, and those who facilitate corruption—make civil society efforts even more vital and more difficult. With ample signs of governmental resistance and even outright hostility to basic democratic rights in a growing number of countries, it is time for all stakeholders in the international community to support civil society. This will help ensure the necessary local impetus for reform that is effective and sustainable.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

By Nancy Boswell

Copyright © 2020 CCSD.