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International Anti-Corruption Day 2009: Time to Reflect and Reboot

What is the international significance of December 9? There are a few dim reminders that today, one is supposed to commemorate International Anti-Corruption. Why merely the occasional dim reminder? Because anti-corruption is largely on the back-burner for most world powers, for most international institutions, and for many of their leaders. They are otherwise engaged – so much to do as a result of the global crisis, the troubled Copenhagen climate summit, to name a couple. Nevermind that corruption did play a role in the financial crisis, and, as we may soon find out, perhaps even in Climategate. Notably, a number of serving, or recent heads of state of wealthy countries, have been under the cloud of corruption. And more generally, corruption has been particularly present in rich countries this year.

To place this special Anti-Corruption Day in poignant perspective, as the decade draws to a close, consider that over six years ago, in late 2003, the U.N. General Assembly designated December 9 as International Anti-Corruption Day. It was intended to promote the U.N. Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), encourage countries to sign and ratify it, and thus ensure its swift entry into force. The UNCAC was touted by the U.N. as "the first legally binding, international anti-corruption instrument that provides a chance to mount a global response to corruption."

What has happened since then? Scores of countries signed; then they ratified. Secretariats organized meetings and drafted process documents. Six years later, in Doha this mid-November, many government officials and others gathered in order to finalize work on the implementation of the review mechanism for country progress on anti-corruption. But an important group of governments present in Doha, including China, Russia, Egypt, Pakistan and Zimbabwe remained opposed to strong commitments to such implementation.

The resulting review mechanism for UNCAC is toothless. It gives governments discretion to exclude civil society from the review process; it makes monitoring progress voluntary (rather than mandatory), and it allows governments to be non-transparent and withhold full publication of country reports. Further, governments somehow managed to design an ineffective and bloated implementation review group, which will not be allowed to review country reports. And they failed to advance on key pending challenges on asset recovery.

All this conspires against the objective of governments fulfilling their obligations under the UNCAC.

Thus, in the immediate aftermath of such a UNCAC setback, as we face the (UNCAC-inspired) International Anti-Corruption Day, it may be appropriate to take a step back to pause and reflect on where we stand today, and where we where we should be headed. Let us reflect, and try to reboot.

Any such reflection needs to take a broader view, beyond the U.N. and UNCAC. We should consider the world’s changed geopolitical landscape, the lessons and aftermath of the financial crisis, and recognize that to fight corruption we cannot merely fight corruption. Leadership, institutions, and governance needs to be brought to the fore.

In fact, looking at the broader picture, it was exactly a year ago that on International Anti-Corruption Day 2008 I was asked to give a farewell address at the World Bank, upon my departure to join the Brookings Institution. The essence of that presentation still applies today.

At the time, after recounting some of my earlier experiences working on development, I spent some time on unorthodox notions such as "legal corruption," as well as the state and regulatory capture of the U.S. financial system, and the havoc that it was causing around the world. I also addressed aid donor community’s problematic approach to furthering good governance and corruption control when working with developing countries. If anything, some of these problems have intensified over the past year, as I have written in this space and elsewhere in recent months.

Fortunately, there are some far-sighted leaders and reformists in some countries who recognize that the global financial crisis was not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for implementing reforms that may otherwise have been more politically difficult to carry out. Those countries will emerge stronger from the crisis with better prospects in the medium term than the many that used the crisis as an excuse to postpone reforms. Further divergence among countries, not convergence, will take place, driven by starkly different quality of governance and leadership. Next, we need to better distill the lessons from countries doing well. They are not necessarily in the G-20, as discussed in earlier writings.