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

DRC Government Members to Post Ethics Code on Office Wall, Resign if They Violate It

The newly installed government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has taken a major, and for the DRC, unprecedented step in the fight against corruption.  At their September 18 swearing in ceremony, each member signed an “Acte d’Engagement,” a one-page letter to Prime Minster Ilunga Ilunkamba containing an ethics code each agrees to observe.  Although the code’s provisions are nothing out of the ordinary, what is out of the ordinary is that ministers of the DRC would publicly commit to them. This represents an important milestone in the effort of the Prime Minister and President Félix Tshisekedi to arrest the corruption that has plagued the mineral-rich but desperately poor nation for so long.

Even more out of the ordinary, the signers pledge to resign if they are found to violate any code provision. Most unusually, they agree to post a copy of the letter in their office and to circulate it to their immediate staff and the civil servant they oversee. The one-page letter with code is written in non-technical, easily understandable prose. Ministers cannot excuse a violation by claiming they did not understand it, and its wide circulation and posting in the ministers’ offices increases the chances they will be held to it.

There is no reason why the governments of other nations where corruption is endemic should not follow the DRC’s lead.  They too should require leaders to publicly commit to a strong ethics code and to post a copy of the code and their pledge to honor it on the wall of their office.  This will remind them and all who meet with them of that commitment.

A translation of the commitment letter/code that each DRC government member signed follows. Continue reading

A U.S. Court Jeopardizes Corporate Transparency Rules, in the Name of Free Speech

Transparency is often seen as an important anticorruption tool, perhaps nowhere more than in extractive industries. Notably, an international movement has called on extractive industry firms to “Publish What You Pay” (PWYP). The idea is that if it were public knowledge what these firms had paid for the concessions they receive from governments, the citizens in those countries (as well as journalists, NGOs, and others) would be better able to hold governments accountable for what they did with the money (and would make it harder for governments, or individual government officials, to lie about how much money they received). Many advocates therefore believe that it would be good public policy to enact PWYP rules that would compel these sorts of disclosures. But would such disclosure requirements violate the constitutional principle of freedom of speech? Alas, some U.S. judges seem to think so.

If the whole idea that disclosure requirements of this sort might infringe free speech rights seems bizarre, I’m with you—in my earlier post on this topic, discussing an earlier case that seemed to take this position, I used words like “absurd” and “inane.” Yet last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a new ruling (a follow-up to the earlier decision I ranted about last year) that seemed to strongly endorse a very broad constitutional protection for corporations against “compelled commercial speech,” which bodes ill. Although the most recent opinion, like the one I posted about last year, does not directly address PWYP mandates, the larger themes of the D.C. Circuit opinion are troubling, and suggest that this court (or at least some judges) may be hostile to the whole idea of using mandatory disclosures as a way to advance important public policy goals, including the fight against corruption. Continue reading

The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

The 3-hour drive from the port city of Douala, Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé, is unsettling–and not just because drivers hurtle down the road, careening around blind curves into oncoming traffic. What is more worrying is that the oncoming traffic is comprised largely of huge lorries on their way to the shipyards transporting some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. After passing 10-15 trucks on my first trip, I started to wonder where the trees were coming from and how they could possibly be arriving in such a steady stream. Perhaps this large-scale lumber harvesting is not by itself all that unusual. But the facts that Cameroon ranks 144/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that nearly two-thirds of these round logs leave the country destined for China–the world’s largest importer of illegally-sourced timber–raise red flags.

Indeed, illegal logging in southern Cameroon and the rest of the Congo Basin is a serious problem, contributing to the destruction of 2.5% of the world’s second largest rainforest over a single decade. Studies show that in two of Cameroon’s nearest neighbors, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), illicit logging could account for as much as 70% of the timber market. In fact, the entire greenbelt envelops countries where corruption is rife – India, China, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria – and the links between corruption and over-logging have been widely studied by the likes of TI, U4, UNODC, and the World Bank.

Current efforts to address poor governance of the timber industry are admirable but insufficient. The EU FLEGT Action Plan and the US Lacey Act regulate trade in wood and ban the importation of illegally sourced goods. Under the FLEGT Plan, Cameroon and the EU agreed to a licensing scheme to promote proper forest management. But no such regulation exists in China, a market that has boomed over the past 15 years largely in response to American demand for manufactured wood products. Furthermore, as the US Environmental Investigation Agency has shown in the Peruvian market, transparent trade depends on formal paperwork – export permits, certificates of origin, etc. – that are easily forged and exchanged on the black market. As a result, the same study points out, American importers often remain culpable, despite regulations.

We need a coordinated global response that can be effective independent of manipulable documents. What might this answer look like? A major component might well be the deployment of new technologies and scientific techniques to verify the origin of timber and timber products. Continue reading