The Covid-19 pandemic has already brought about numerous changes to our world and lives.
We may never return to the world we left behind before Covid-19, which could have vast implications for anti-corruption, governance and development. Given the gravity and speed of the political, economic and social changes that we are seeing, it is vital to take a step back to reflect on the impact of these trends.
The purpose of this reflection is less to predict the future and more to consider different potential outcomes on key topics and to identify opportunities for course-correction in the short, mid and long term.
When faced with extraordinary circumstances, such as the current pandemic, governments often resort to extreme measures, including increased surveillance and restrictions of the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and the closing of space for civil society, the media and whistle-blowers.
However, the imperatives of social distancing may be accelerating the spread of digital forms of activism and participatory processes, such as citizen assemblies, or public hearings conducted online.
Emergency measures often include the temporary suspension of institutional checks and balances. Governments around the world have used the Covid-19 crisis to consolidate power, suspend oversight and accountability institutions, and in some cases to attack political opponents.
Depending on the context, the military may also gain an upper hand over civilian power holders, further exacerbating risks of authoritarian abuses. If this concentration of power outlives the pandemic itself, anti-corruption reformers and promoters of democracy ought to gear up for a back-to-basics kind of agenda, pushing for the reinstatement of the appropriate institutional checks and balances, transparency and ethics, fairness and integrity.
In the short term, countries will face clear corruption and governance challenges as emergencies put pressure on governments to procure life-saving equipment, creating fertile ground for fraud and corruption. These include shortage-induced bribery risks, overpricing, diversion of emergency response resources, and kickbacks in procurement processes. The private sector is an active player in this environment!
Reduced income, a reduction in manufacturing and increased risk aversion are factors contributing to a worsening of the economy. This is likely to contribute to the rise of the informal sector of the economy, as more people find themselves in precarious employment.
This may lead to a paradigm shift in the delivery of social and public goods expected from the state, such as health care, social security measures and even climate governance.
All these factors come with high corruption risks. In the short term, huge economic stimulus packages will have to be monitored to ensure they are being spent for the common good, rather than in the private interest of a few.
Another facet of the economic dimension relates to the possible spike in poverty and inequality. The pandemic is already hitting harder the poorest and most disadvantaged groups who tend to live in closer quarters and without adequate medical and social support.
Many will struggle with job losses and family burdens. Depending on how the economic stimulus bailouts are managed and disbursed, big corporations may end up benefiting, using the “too-big-to-fail” argument, while the population at large foots the bill.
In the medium and long term, the corruption risks are associated with the wider power imbalances brought by inequality and the opportunities for state capture and undue influence by privileged groups in policy processes and decision-making.
Reliance on technology in daily life, together with the development of innovative responses to current global needs, might increase exponentially the influence and power of big-tech companies. However, increased recognition of their role in our lives may lead to a new consensus on the optimal extent and means of regulation. The corruption risks, primarily related to the undue influence of large corporations on the policy process and political advertising online, will very much depend on the outcome of government attempts to regulate the activities of such companies.
The negative impacts of illicit financial flows on public budgets, government effectiveness and even inequality had been increasingly recognized long before the Covid-19 health crisis. However, the pandemic has laid bare the devastating effects of stashing cash away in tax havens, while governments struggle to pay for basic services required to keep people alive.
The pandemic has brought to light the inability of multilateral bodies such as the UN Security Council, Group of 7, or the European Union to effectively coordinate the response to the crisis.
When looking at all these topics, it is clear that there are both opportunities and challenges ahead for anti-corruption, governance and development work.
Will we in the Integrity Initiative have to continue with our anti-corruption work? I am convinced that we have to!
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