About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Guest Post: Coronavirus and the Corruption Outbreak

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

It was never a question of if, but when, and now here we are. What’s worse is that we were warned. We are in the midst of a major global pandemic with nations all over the world declaring national emergencies, health systems struggling to cope or bracing themselves for the onslaught, and ordinary people trying to make sense of a barrage of sometimes conflicting information. The World Health Organization and national governments around the world recognize that slowing the spread of the coronavirus (more accurately, the SARS-CoV-2 virus) and helping those who are already suffering—both physically and economically—will require swift and bold action.

Unfortunately, that urgency significantly increases the risk that the response to the coronavirus pandemic will unleash a wave of corruption, one that not only threatens to undermine the effectiveness of the response thus ensuring greater loss of life, but could persist much longer than the outbreak itself, debilitating health systems long term.

In emergency situations, when lives are at stake, it is all too easy to rationalize the subordination of concerns about things like accountability and transparency, and to disregard or ignore any anticorruption infrastructure that may currently be in place. It’s hard to focus on holding leaders accountable when government action is desperately needed to save lives. But ignoring the risks of abuse of power during a crisis would be a grave mistake, and in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, at least three such risks are especially serious: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Mushtaq Khan and Paul Heywood

In all the chaos of last week’s COVID-19 developments, I neglected to announce that a new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is was published back on March 22. In this episode, the first in a two-part series, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke, sit down with Professor Mushtaq Khan and Professor Paul Heywood to discuss a variety of topics, including the complexities of the relationship between corruption and development and the “Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme” (ACE), an initiative sponsored by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to strengthen the knowledge base for anticorruption initiatives. Professors Khan and Heywood are both ACE project leaders, and they describe the philosophy and core themes of the ACE project, and some of its work so far. The conversation also discusses more generally critiques of traditional approaches to anticorruption in developing countries, and alternative approaches and perspectives.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Why Hasn’t the IACC Meeting Been Postponed Yet?!?!

As many readers of this blog are likely aware, one of the biggest international anticorruption conferences, aptly named the International Anti-Corruption Conference, scheduled its 2020 meeting for June 2-5 in Seoul, South Korea. It should be patently obvious to anybody that’s been paying attention that this conference absolutely must be postponed in light of the COVID-19 situation. Even if, three months from now, most of the hardest-hit countries have succeeded in “flattening the curve” to some degree, hosting a major international conference–one that will bring together people from all over the world, to meet and interact at close quarters for four days in a country that’s been a COVID-19 hotspot (albeit one that has done a good job getting the outbreak under control) before dispersing back to their countries of origin–is the height of irresponsibility.

So it came to me as a something of a shock that the IACC meeting has not (yet) been postponed. Indeed, just yesterday the IACC sent around an announcement encouraging young journalists to apply for the conference’s Young Journalist Program (offering those selected air travel and accommodations for the Seoul meeting). On the IACC website, the most recent COVID-19 update is from March 11 (over two weeks ago), and says:

We are very mindful of the current situation regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and we understand that many of you are concerned on how it will affect the 19th International Anti-corruption Conference (IACC) in Seoul, Korea, from 2-5 June.

While our strong wish is to get together in early June for the IACC2020 in Seoul to learn from each other and join forces to be more effective in our efforts to end corruption in the coming years, our priority is the safety of all the participants and our staff.

The IACC team is regularly monitoring the global health situation and is in dialogue with the IACC Council and our partners in Korea. A decision to hold the conference, postpone to a later date or any other decision will be made in coming weeks. In the meantime, we will continue our planning.

We appreciate your understanding and recommend caution when making any financial commitments, like purchasing non-refundable flight tickets, until a final decision is reached. We will be updating you as soon as an informed and collectively [sic] decision is taken.

That’s all fine and good, but I think by now and informed decision to postpone the conference can and should be taken (and at the very least, the IACC shouldn’t be posting announcements encouraging people to apply). Come on guys! If the IOC can finally get its act together and postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, surely the IACC can reach a similar decision without further deliberations. After all, shouldn’t the anticorruption community be at the forefront of emphasizing the importance of prioritizing the public welfare over other concerns?

Guest Announcement: Special Issue on Fighting Corruption in the Health Sector

Continuing this week’s theme of highlighting resources on the links between corruption/anticorruption and the coronavirus pandemic, in today’s guest post Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption, announces the following new resource on fighting corruption in the health sector:

Last week, the open-source academic journal Global Health Action, published a special issue on anticorruption, transparency, and accountability in the health sector. Although not about the COVID-19 situation specifically, this special issue—a joint undertaking with the World Health Organization—addresses crucial and highly relevant issues related to the health sector’s ability to prevent, detect, and sanction corruption, in order to address the threats that corruption poses to the health system’s ability to perform effectively during both crises and normal times.

After an introductory overview by Theadora Koller, David Clarke, and Taryn Vian, the special issue includes seven articles:

Guest Post: Ensuring Adequate Anticorruption, Accountability, and Transparency Measures During the Pandemic

Today’s guest post is from Shruti Shah and Alex Amico from the Coalition for Integrity:

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: Continue reading

Some Recent Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic

As I noted last week, although this blog is going to keep on going during the COVID-19 crisis (though perhaps with somewhat reduced output), it’s a bit challenging to proceed with blogging about one problem (corruption) when another problem (the COVID-19 pandemic) is so much at the forefront of everybody’s mind. And in that last post, I noted that although there’s a well-known connection between corruption and public health generally, “so far corruption doesn’t seem to be a major issue in the COVID-19 situation.”

I think perhaps I spoke too soon. We’re already starting to see a number of interesting and useful commentaries on the connections between corruption/anticorruption and the COVID-19 pandemic (several of which readers helpfully noted in comments on last week’s post). I do think we should always try to be a bit cautious about straining to find links between whatever it is we work on and the most salient problem of the day. (I can’t help but remember that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, people suddenly discovered that whatever problem they’d been working on for the past decade was inextricably linked to the threat of global terrorism.) But in this case I’m persuaded that the links are particularly plausible and important that this is something that deserves further study.

At some point, I may post some original content on this topic to GAB, but for now let me just provide links to some of the interesting early commentaries on the possible connections between corruption and the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Natalie Rhodes, who works with the Transparency International Health Initiative, has an essay–subsequently expanded into a longer feature on Transparency International’s website–discusses some of the corruption risks during the response to an epidemic, including shortage-induced bribery risks, diversion of emergency response resources, and kickbacks in the procurement process.
  • Jodi Vittori, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, has a piece entitled “Corruption Vulnerabilities in the U.S. Response to Coronavirus,” which similarly emphasizes corruption risks in medical supply chains, and the greater difficulty in securing transparency and accountability during times of crisis. She lays out a series of measures that, she argues, must be integrated into all COVID-19 response legislation, and also suggests some things that ordinary citizens can do.
  • Another Carnegie Endowment fellow, Abigail Bellows, has a piece called “Coronavirus Meets Corruption: Recommendations for U.S. Leadership,” which emphasizes that the combination of systemic corruption and the COVID-19 crisis could prove especially devastating in the developing world, and suggests that the U.S. government could help ameliorate this situation by targeting more of its foreign aid at strengthening fiscal management systems, and by enacting a number of currently-pending bills that, while not specifically related to corruption in the health sector, would provide greater U.S. support to the fight against kleptocracy abroad.
  • In one of the earliest blog commentaries suggesting a corruption-coronavirus link, Gretta Fenner and Monica Guy of the Basel Institute on Governance wrote a post for the FCPA blog in late January that suggested the original coronavirus outbreak in China may have been linked to the illegal wildlife trade, and that the illegal wildlife trade is made possible by corruption–a string of connections that leads them to ask, in the title of their post, “Did corruption cause the deadly coronavirus outbreak?”

I’m sure that in the days and weeks ahead, more commentaries will appear that explore both the ways that corruption may have contributed to, or exacerbated the impact of, the coronavirus pandemic, and the corruption risks associated with the policy responses to this crisis. I probably won’t be able to keep up with all of them, but I’ll do my best to feature them on the blog when I can, and if readers are aware of other useful commentaries, please send me the information through this blog’s contact page.

Thanks everyone, and stay safe.

Guest Post: Assessing the Relationship Between Parliament and Anticorruption Agencies

Today’s guest post is from Franklin De Vrieze, a Senior Governance Advisor for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), a UK public body that works with parliaments, political parties, and civil society groups to promote fairer, more transparent, and more accountable democratic political systems.

In many countries, especially developing or transition countries, an independent anticorruption agency (ACA) is an important part of the country’s national anticorruption strategy. Today, there are more than 100 ACAs around the world, and though there are many different types of ACAs—some have only preventive and policy coordination roles—many ACAs have law enforcement powers (investigation and/or prosecution). To be effective in carrying out these law enforcement responsibilities, particularly when dealing with high-level corruption, ACAs must be sufficiently independent and sufficiently powerful. At the same time, though, the interest in autonomy may sometimes be in tension with other interests. For one thing, an ACA needs to maintain constructive working relations with state bodies dealing with corruption, including courts and the police. For another, accountability is also important. Any entity with law enforcement powers might wield those powers abusively, and in extreme cases, one must worry about the politicization of ACAs

What is the appropriate role of the parliament in addressing these challenges? Somewhat surprisingly, relatively little has been written on this topic. Relatively few ACAs report directly to parliament, probably due to understandable concerns regarding the need for independence from politicians who might themselves be the target of anticorruption investigations. Yet some have argued that for ACAs to be effective, they must be overseen, at least to some degree, by multiple external bodies, including parliament. More generally, in a democracy parliament will often bear ultimate responsibility for establishing measures that guarantee ACA independence but that also provide for sufficient ACA accountability.

In order to assist researchers and the democracy assistance community in optimizing parliament’s relationship to an ACA, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) has recently published a research paper on parliament and independent oversight institutions (including ACAs), together with a companion assessment framework for the analysis of the relationship between parliaments and independent institutions. The assessment framework, which is rooted in existing international and comparative standards such as the Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies, focuses on four main aspects of parliament’s relationship with the ACA: Continue reading