A long walk to freedom need not mean a slow crawl on combating corrupt government
BY PETER O’BRIEN*
The recent (May 12) London Summit on Anti-Corruption resulted in another small step in the right direction. About 40 countries were represented, along with a number of international sports associations and similar bodies that have come under scrutiny for corruption. No real agreements were made, but some initiatives were announced. The UK Government, which for the last several years has been concerned about that country’s poor reputation due to its role in money-laundering, confirmed its plans to establish a register (with retroactive force) of large property owners. The so-called Beneficial Owners Transparency Initiative will shortly be made law. Despite the efforts to persuade other significant countries to follow the same path, to date only 4 of the G20 countries have committed to ending the practice of Secret Company Ownership. The sports associations present (which did not include FIFA, perhaps because of its major meetings in Mexico the following day) agreed to launch, in 2017, an International Sport Integrity Partnership, though the details of this are still unclear.
La Suisse lave plus blanc
The London meeting sensibly sought to focus on a single dimension only of anti-corruption efforts, namely financial secrecy. It is now some 35 years since the Swiss campaigner, Jean Ziegler, published a fierce tract on money-laundering in his own country, “La Suisse lave plus blanc” (in English translation: “Switzerland Washes Whiter”) , and it was towards the end of the 1980s that activities against the international drug trade started to place priority on tracking down where and how the money had been used (especially through the efforts of the Financial Action Task Force, set up with the participation of both national and international institutions). Notwithstanding the flood of additional information (that will require very careful analysis) provided by the Panama Papers, this route remains a tough one.
There are at least three problems to overcome. First, and most important, the reluctance of countries ( and states/regions within them) to embrace full transparency. Put simply, that elusive animal, political will, is hard to manage. Second, the complexity of legal and other arguments relating to what should be the boundaries separating legitimate claims for privacy from claims designed to shroud illegal behavior. Third, the major practical difficulties in carrying out investigative work on the scale required. To date, no international body has been given the resources adequate to such a task.
Corruption vs. Money
Discussions of corruption and money often mix together issues that should be kept separate. Africa’s countries are faced with two challenges: the use of money to distort decisions (such as those involving public procurement) and the avoidance of payments that should be made to the State (leading to what is variously called the “shadow economy” or the “informal economy”). Both things make governance more difficult, and tend to impede economic growth. Both can lead to money laundering. And at least the former often involves foreign entities.
While the London Summit did not unfortunately shed much new light on these matters, the information made available again underlined how so many other countries are locked into the same battle. For instance, data referring to 2012 and covering 20 EU Member States show that best estimates of the size of the shadow economy in relation to GDP are quite alarming. Of the 20 countries measured, the lowest percentage (shadow to total GDP) was for Austria, at 7.6% while the highest was for Bulgaria (31.9%). The median figure, 15.5%, was for Slovakia, a striking finding given it is a country that for years has had only a single, and low, tax rate (meaning tax evasion might be expected to be small). Indeed, both Germany and Sweden have a shadow economy/legal economy ratio of around 14/15%. In other words: the advanced countries not only have a problem with aggressive corruption (that aimed at particular projects and programs) but also with the silent corruption of the shadow economy.
Governance & Incentives
The governance issues, not really examined in London, remain for Africa at the center of the problems. It is now a full 20 years since the then President of the World Bank declared that governance was the great obstacle to be overcome in the efforts towards development, and further declared that “the cancer of corruption” was the central issue in governance. Since then, it seems that little progress has been made. Or, to put it differently, the efforts of a political and technical nature have been neutralized by the growing sophistication (legal, technological and financial) in the criminal world.
The measures against money laundering operate from the premise that if criminals are faced with a high risk that they will never be able to enjoy the benefits of their actions, they will be much less inclined to behave badly. This is a fair line of policy to follow, yet so far the deterrent effect does not seem to have been too powerful. An opposite way of tackling things is to find ways of reducing the incentives to corrupt behavior to start with. Given that for Africa it is this which would seem to provide the best, if modest, hope for achieving home-grown policies against corruption, future efforts should be made along these lines.
No doubt many countries are already experimenting with their own tentative policies. It might be made worthwhile establishing simple information exchanges among countries about how they have designed and implemented such policies, and the results they are achieving. For some years, it has been normal to use an experimental approach towards assessing and improving various anti-poverty programs. It is perhaps now time to follow the same path with regard to anti-corruption.
* About the author: Peter O’Brien is economics & trade advisor to Africa consulting boutique Pr1merio. With over 30 years’ international expertise in economic and financial analysis, trade negotiations, and deal making, Peter O’Brien has advised governments, NGOs, and private clients on economics, policy, and diplomacy matters. Peter has worked worked in all regions of Africa, providing advice to clients ranging from South African conglomerates to Ethiopian government ministries. A native of Ireland, Peter is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German.