Corruption is rife in the COVID-19 era. Here’s how to fight back

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(Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tim Hanstad, CEO of the Chandler Foundation and Co-Founder, Landesa


  • The pandemic has created conditions in which corruption can flourish.
  • This can exacerbate and prolong the negative effects of this crisis.
  • Here are three ways to start tackling this issue today.

The global pandemic has public health experts and medical providers around the world working overtime. And so, it seems, are profiteers.

Even before the pandemic, an estimated $455 billion of the $7.35 trillion spent annually on healthcare worldwide was lost to fraud and corruption. Today, as governments are ramping up pandemic response spending to unprecedented levels and shovelling it out of the door with understandable urgency and desperation, the risk of corruption and misappropriation has increased exponentially. A recent survey by a German anti-fraud consulting company found that a majority of the 58 countries surveyed experienced corruption related to purchasing and/or access to personal protective equipment. And a report from the Lawyers Council for Civil and Economic Rights found that government contracts for the coronavirus response have been riddled with irregularities in dozens of countries.

Even in the best of times, government corruption and mismanagement are harmful – they can cost lives and financial resources. In today’s pandemic they fuel a spiraling tragedy. Together, they will prolong the crisis by undermining government efficiency, significantly increasing the loss of life, wasting untold resources, and reducing society’s already fragile trust in government – each of which has significant long-term consequences that will linger far longer than the virus itself.

As this pandemic – perhaps the greatest challenge to governments in our lifetime – mounts, we must build a coalition of civil society, business leaders, dedicated government officials and funders to strengthen government accountability and effectiveness and change the trajectory of this pandemic and our futures. Here’s how.

Demand greater accountability

Following the maxim “we get the government we deserve”, we need to unite citizens to press for greater accountability and effectiveness from government institutions. This has already started as civil society organizations are building coalitions to hold government to account and defend government whistleblowers. Coalitions of NGOs are calling on the US Congress and the International Monetary Fund to include anti-corruption safeguards in all emergency pandemic funding. The Coronavirus Facts Database has fact-checkers in more than 70 countries monitoring pandemic mis/disinformation, while the Accountability Lab’s Coronavirus CivActs Campaign is debunking rumours and helping governments around the world deliver reliable public health information. Organizations like Represent Us are helping pass anti-corruption measures in states and cities across the US. In Europe, citizens in the Czech Republic and Poland joined large anti-corruption demonstrations last year and a newly created European Public Prosecutor’s Office, due to launch later this year, will have extensive powers to investigate and prosecute the misuse of EU funds. Meanwhile, organizations like Transparency International, Open Society Foundations, and the Group of States against Corruption, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, continue to press for reforms.

Commit to transparency

Business leaders must also commit to fair dealing and must exhibit transparency and accountability – and not just because, as the National Law Review warned, failing to do so carries a reputational risk. Businesses should join civil society’s call for greater accountability from governments because they too must live with the consequences should governments fail. Leadership Now, a group of US business leaders, has put together a primer for business on how to help improve government performance and restore trust. The B Team, a group of global business leaders forging a more responsible approach to capitalism, has called for companies to counter government violations of human rights in response to the pandemic.

During this crisis, which presents seemingly endless opportunities for self-dealing, malfeasance and plain-old misjudgments, dedicated public servants around the world should find allies and resources through organizations like the Open Government Partnership, which has developed a guide for open government reformers and a list of more than 200 crowdsourced examples of practical ideas, tools and resources on how civil servants can fulfil their duties more effectively and transparently. In the midst of this pandemic-induced government spending spree, the open contracting community has recommendations on how governments can buy emergency equipment fast and without favour. The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body, meanwhile, has issued guidelines for public servants in its member states to mitigate humankind’s worst inclinations.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about corruption?

It hosts the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), the largest global CEO-led anti-corruption initiative.

Realizing that corruption hampers growth and innovation, and increases social inequality, PACI aims to shape the global anti-corruption agenda.

Founded in 2004, it brings together top CEOs, governments and international organizations who develop collective action on corruption, transparency and emerging-marking risks.

PACI uses technology to boost transparency and accountability through its platform, Tech for Integrity.

Catalytic philanthropy

Finally, funders must recognize this as a moment to pivot from retail philanthropy towards catalytic philanthropy. Do the math; philanthropy’s response to the pandemic will be measured in the billions of dollars, while governments’ responses will be in the trillions. To maximize impact, a good portion of philanthropy’s billions should be directed at ensuring the much larger government response is effective and that government systems are strengthened for the long term. At the Chandler Foundation, which I lead, we responded to the crisis by joining the donor collaborative Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI), which offers tools to help funders support good governance. Another donor collaborative, Co-Impact, invests in organizations working to improve government accountability, efficiency and effectiveness – partnerships that have never been more critical.

The pandemic has already taken more than 500,000 lives around the world – but we can stop it from taking away our remaining trust in government.

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