We are living through an emergency more severe than anything in recent memory. The COVID-19 public health crisis has triggered an associated economic crisis, and both will require a dramatic government response. But the fact that we are dealing with an emergency situation—in which swift and drastic government action is essential—does not mean that we should put aside our concerns about government corruption, or relax our vigilance about demands for transparency and accountability in government programs. Quite the opposite: In order to respond effectively, and to demonstrate that they can be trusted, governments other institutions need to demonstrate that they are committed to honest oversight of the extraordinary actions necessary to combat this pandemic. The need to act swiftly does not abrogate the government’s responsibility to adhere to principles of anticorruption, accountability, and transparency.
There is no better illustration of this than the stimulus package being negotiated (at the time of writing) in the U.S. Congress. This stimulus will result in a flow of an enormous amount of money, and the risks of corruption, fraud, and misappropriation or diversion are extremely high. It is therefore essential that the stimulus bill incorporate meaningful transparency, oversight, and anticorruption provisions. For example:
- The new stimulus bill should follow the precedent of the 2008 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which created a Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to oversee the management of the stimulus funds, and also increased funding for Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office to assist those entities with their oversight responsibilities.
- Again following ARRA’s precedent, the new stimulus bill should include stringent recordkeeping and reporting requirements to ensure that stimulus money is managed properly.
- All contracts and disbursements under the stimulus plan should be fully transparent and immediately accessible to the general public.
- All contractors and subcontractors that receive stimulus funds should be required to provide beneficial ownership information (that is, they should be required to identify the human beings with substantial direct or indirect ownership stakes), in order to prevent criminals from using anonymous shell companies to facilitate wrongdoing and misuse of funds, and to prevent the obfuscation of conflicts of interest.
- All contracts under the stimulus plan should include anticorruption and clawback clauses to prevent fraud by contracting companies.
- The stimulus should also include strong additional whistleblower protections those who disclosure corruption or fraud associated with the stimulus, ensuring that those who know of such malfeasance can come forward without fear of punishment.
If Congress acts so swiftly that it fails to incorporate these provisions in the legislation, Congress and the public should press the Administration to adopt similar provisions as simple good governance measures.
In addition to domestic measures like the stimulus bill, fighting COVID 19 will also require wealthy countries like the United States to step up international aid. The U.S. Government announced on March 2, a commitment of $37 million in financing from the Emergency Reserve Fund for Contagious Infectious Diseases at the U.S. Agency for International Development for 25 countries affected by novel coronavirus COVID-19 or at high risk of its spread. Here too, funding should also be accompanied by provisions to ensure transparent and accountable use of allocated funds. Without these, corruption in healthcare can and will compound people’s misery.
Fighting through this crisis will not be easy. It will not only require that our government acts swiftly and effectively, but that the crisis response is not undermined by corruption or other forms of malfeasance. Even in a moment of crisis—indeed, especially in a moment of crisis—it is essential that we, the public, demand that our governments adhere to the highest standards of anticorruption, accountability, and transparency.