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?
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 →
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:
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.
The rapidly worsening COVID-19 situation has been disruptive and stressful for people all over the world. My home institution, Harvard University, has sent all students home and asked faculty and non-essential staff to work from home to the extent possible. And many others, including many in our reader community, have things much worse.
I’ve been thinking about the best way to proceed with this blog under the circumstances, especially since, while public health crises are often linked with corruption problems (see, for example, here, here, and here), so far corruption doesn’t seem to be a major issue in the COVID-19 situation. (There have been significant government failures in handling the COVID-19 outbreak, but those seem to be due more to incompetence, mismanagement, and lack of preparedness, rather than greed and graft.) On the one hand, it feels strange to be thinking and writing about anything other than the COVID-19 crisis right now. On the other hand, it’s not like all of the world’s other problems have gone away, and if corruption isn’t a major part of the COVID-19 story right now, I suspect that it will be in the not-too-distant future.
So, at least for now, GAB will continue to operate, though perhaps with somewhat less frequent posts. And if any experts in the public health-corruption link would like to get a discussion going on how corruption issues do relate to the COVID-19 crisis, I’m always open to guest post submissions (which you can send to me here).
Finally, and most importantly of all, I hope that all of you do whatever you can to stay safe and healthy during this difficult and dangerous time.