One Year Later: The Anti-Corruption Community’s Response to COVID-19

Over a year since widespread lockdowns began and just a few months since COVID-19 vaccines started a mostly slow rollout, glimmers of hope are contrasting with deep ongoing crises around the world. Alongside the massive human and economic costs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented global surge in cases of fraud, public spending abuse, and corruption.

A bright spot amidst the tragedies of the past year has been the efforts by civil society organizations (CSOs)from grassroots groups to international organizationsto help rapidly identify transparency problems, fraud risks, and instances of corruption by public officials. The anti-corruption community was swift to issue warnings and quick to launch new initiatives to help fight ballooning corruption risks as billions of dollars in aid have been distributed to address the global emergency, often with very limited oversight. 

These efforts are more visible than ever before. As Delia Ferreira, Chair of Transparency International, put it in a recent podcast with the Anti-Corruption and Governance Center (ACGC), “In previous emergencies [like] the Ebola crisis…the discovery of the disclosure of corruption issues related to the emergency response appeared long after the emergency was solved. In this case, the corruption reports, complaints and investigations were concomitant with the emergency…showing that people are more aware of the problem of corruption.”

ACGC’s COVID-19 Response

ACGC has taken a multi-pronged approach. First, there’s a COVID-19 & Corruption WhatsApp channel for international practitioners that serves as a clearinghouse for news articles, events, and reports. Then there’s a running list of trackers, articles, and resources to keep the anti-corruption community up to date with the latest COVID-19 and corruption developments. 

The central pillar of ACGC’s COVID-19 response was an extensive COVID-19 and Corruption webinar series that included 13 virtual events. These presentations addressed various thematic and regional corruption issues related to the pandemic, and featured several high-profile speakers from organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Open Government Partnership, and International Republican Institute, as well as noted academics like Louise Shelley and Nikos Passas from the field of anti-corruption.

International Response to Covid-19 & Corruption

As government interventions grew, large international organizations issued warnings and statements about growing corruption risks in emergency response actions. Transparency International (TI) led the charge by launching a webpage dedicated to educating the public on corruption during the pandemic. In the same vein, the IMF began publicizing the issue of corruption and COVID-19 and cautioned that “governments are playing a bigger role in the economy and this increases opportunities for corruption.”

Other warnings were more severe. On COVID-19 corruption risks, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made a statement where he declared that “corruption is the ultimate betrayal of public trust.” Concerned activists and anti-corruption professionals issued similar messages of concern. “Massive public procurement projects related to the coronavirus will face serious risks of collusion and embezzlement,” wrote Abigail Bellows, Nonresident Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in March 2020. 

Warnings quickly turned to actions, and many civil society groups turned to large international organizations for assistance in tracking where emergency aid was being distributed. One of the first areas to receive close attention was public procurement, as governments strained to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies and equipment. 

To promote procurement accountability, TI collaborated with the International Monetary Fund on the IMF COVID-19 Anti-Corruption Tracker to analyze which countries receiving emergency financial assistance and debt relief from the IMF have specific anti-corruption measures and which do not.

Certainly, international collaboration to track and monitor corruption reached new heights during the pandemic. Since March 2020, Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs), which operate in over 60 countries, have received more than 1500 reports on corruption and irregularities related to COVID-19.

Anti-Corruption Community Response

Other anti-corruption NGOs with global reach also moved proactively during the pandemic. Building on ACGC’s monthly publication of COVID-related anti-corruption news articles and reports, Global Integrity released a comprehensive running list of resources in July 2020, which currently contains over 700 entries. 

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) sought to bridge the gap in resources among countries by hosting a running list of open government approaches from around the world. Meanwhile, their Open Response + Open Recovery campaign has provided a platform for partner organizations to share the resources they are developing to address COVID-related transparency issues. 

The Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF)  launched procurement monitoring programs in Malawi, Moldova, and Argentinawhere a vaccine deployment monitoring program has also been initiated. PTF also hosted events promoting the transparency work of local CSOs during the pandemic and has written about the role of citizen engagement in increasing transparency during the pandemic. 

Other NGOs released new publications addressing the intersection between COVID-19 and corruption issues. The World Justice Project (WJP) released a policy brief entitled Corruption and the COVID-19 Pandemic in July 2020 outlining the “principal corruption risks posed by the pandemic and highlights relevant norms, best practices, and resources to combat corruption in the pandemic response and recovery period.” In addition, Freedom House published a report detailing the pandemic’s harmful impact on the global struggle for freedom, finding that “the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries.” 

More recently, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) published a collection of essays on transnational kleptocracy and COVID-19including one authored by Alexandra Gillies, who served as a panelist for ACGC’s COVID-19 and Corruption series webinar on oil governance. A product of six workshops hosted by the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the essays explore how the pandemic-related economic upheaval has created opportunities for corrupt ruling elites and investigate what civil society and independent media can do to respond to ballooning corruption and illicit finance challenges.

Finally, the on-the-ground work of grassroots anti-corruption organizations has been crucial to keeping governments accountable and raising citizen awareness. ACGC had the opportunity to sit down and hear from Hamzat Lawal, Chief Executive of Connected Development (CODE) and Follow The Money (FTM). Lawal explained how his organizations have developed a cutting-edge strategy to push for greater public transparency of COVID-19 and other government spending. 

This strategy is based on a combination of on-the-ground research, freedom-of-information requests, and social media campaigns to track public spending promises and quickly inform and mobilize public support for transparency. These initiatives have grown quickly in the past year as CODE and FTM have launched several new digital accountability initiatives across Africa.

Keeping the Momentum Going

While the pandemic continues to cause devastation worldwide and will likely leave impacts that will be felt for decades to come, there is reason for optimism. This crisis has shown us what can be accomplished through unified action. From elite organizations to grassroots civic actors, the anti-corruption community has come together to fight a shared challenge. 

It is with this sense of solidarity that we must keep the momentum going as we forge ahead and face the corruption challenges of a post-COVID world.

Cover photo: Unsplash