How To Fight Corruption During a Pandemic

September 30, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up plenty of opportunities for graft. We spoke with Global Integrity to learn how their anti-corruption coalition is adapting to this new environment.

The old adage ‘every crisis is an opportunity’ has been thrown around a lot this year. After all, there’s hardly been a shortage of crises, and activists and rights advocates from around the world have been working tirelessly to seize on the flux to articulate a vision of a fairer and more just global system.

But crises are also excellent opportunities for those with entrenched power to undermine public institutions, and enrich themselves. Unfortunately, a number of powerful interests have taken the opportunity to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to line their pockets, and profit from the massive investment of public resources being dedicated to combating the disease.

The crisis has seen an upsurge in corruption in pandemic-related service delivery, the delivery of subsidies and financial support to citizens, as well as in the realm of public procurement. There are plenty of examples we can cite globally, with incidents of COVID-19-related corruption documented in:

  • Nigeria, where the national health agency is being investigated for inflating equipment costs;
  • South Africa, where PPE procurement practices are being probed;
  • United States, where paper-thin anti-corruption safeguards risk wide-scale profiteering;
  • Colombia, where public contracting procedures are coming under scrutiny;
  • Mexico, where ‘direct award’ COVID-19 procurement processes risk exploitation; and
  • Romania and Slovenia, where contracts are falling into the lap of former officials and business magnates.

It’s with these challenges in mind that the independent anti-corruption NGO Global Integrity, in collaboration with its partners, has developed new programmes to help maintain government accountability during the COVID-19 crisis.

In this edition of Open & Shut, we spoke with the team about their initiatives, and how they might offer some lessons for other anti-corruption organisations working amid the pandemic.

Two of Global Integrity’s major initiatives designed to combat corruption during the pandemic are Account4COVID and the COVID-19 Fiscal Governance Database. Let’s take each of them in turn to see how they’re supporting civil society actors to hold governments to account globally.

Account4COVID: Knowledge-Sharing in the COVID-19 Era

Account4COVID is a collaborative project between BudgITGlobal IntegrityPSAMAccountability LabAfroleadership, and CRECO, aiming to support civil society organizations across Africa to exchange their approaches, experiences, and learnings about demanding transparency, participation, and accountability concerning the use of public resources to combat COVID-19.

African states have had mixed records on maintaining adequate transparency and accountability standards during the pandemic. Some countries have published information to maintain public trust. One such case is Kenya, where the Action4Transparency project has been using mobile applications and other social media and ICT platforms to track and publish COVID-19 expenditures. Although the country has still not been free of corruption scandals, authorities have demanded stronger transparency reporting mechanisms in response, and there are local examples such as the Makueni Open Contracting Portal that can provide useful models going forward.

Others, like South Africa, have increased the publication of information in response to public pressure by civil society organisations. Account4Covid member PSAM is the co-founder of South Africa’s Imali Yethu (“It’s Our Money” in Zulu) Coalition of CSOs. This coalition co-created the online budget portal ‘Vulekamali’ to publish real-time COVID-19 allocations and expenditure data across different departments and provinces, in coordination with the National Treasury Department of South Africa

In many other cases, CSOs have used other means to obtain and make public information on government’s use of public resources through freedom of information requests, information from citizens, or publicly available data that is not easily accessible by the average citizen.

The Account4COVID initiative seeks to create a space for organisations to co-develop strategies to advocate for transparency, accountability and participation (or TAP) in COVID-19-related public procurement, service provisions, and expenditure allocations. Global Integrity’s Research and Learning Manager, Yeukai Mukorombindo noted that adaptations to the pandemic have been more of a matter of evolution in existing practices, rather than requiring a total revolution in approach:

“These strategies are not fundamentally different because many of the challenges they are attempting to tackle arise from gaps and weaknesses in health and fiscal governance systems that pre-existed the pandemic.

COVID-19 has merely exacerbated these challenges as well as made implementation of these strategies more difficult due to public health interventions such as stay-at-home orders and the practice of social distancing.”

However, the closure of civic space that has accompanied the pandemic has complicated anti-corruption work further. CIVICUS identified the troubling trend of declining civic space in Africa in its CIVICUS Tracker. At an August Account4COVID webinar Janet Zhou, Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD), raised concerns about witnessing the arrest and detention of journalists and anti-corruption activists who exposed a COVID-related scandal in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health. This story is one of many; Ugandan journalist Tom Gwebayanga was arrested in April while investigating allegations of corruption by the country’s COVID-19 taskforce.

In response, Mukorombindo argues that a change in approach has been necessary:

“Most actors are having to adapt their strategies by using online & mobile platforms, other forms of technology and virtual innovation to apply their strategies. This requires a set of capacities and resources that not all civil society organizations have, in particular grassroots organizations.

As such we are seeing collaboration between more elite CSOs and grassroots CSOs to apply local TAP strategies., [such as] Accountability Lab’s CivActs Campaign and BudgIT’s Tracka project, which relies on collaboration between urban and rural partners and citizens to use civic tech to track public projects and demand efficient service delivery.”

With avenues for in-person engagement limited, and with state powers expanding, it will be imperative to empower grassroots transparency, accountability and participation advocates to continue their work by reconceptualising, and expanding their use of civic tech.

One incredibly important tool developed to help such organisations make this transition is Global Integrity’s COVID-19 Fiscal Governance Database.

COVID-19 Fiscal Governance Database: A Pandemic Reading List

The COVID-19 Fiscal Governance Database is a comprehensive database of resources for civil society and government, relating to fiscal governance and corruption during the pandemic. It contains a wealth of information, including documented corruption cases, innovative methodologies and tools for transparency work, and reflections about how to be more effective in addressing these issues in the middle of the ongoing pandemic.

In light of the continuing closures in civic space, Global Integrity judged that more needed to be done to arm transparency advocates with the resources they needed to adapt to the new environment.

Global Integrity’s Fiscal Governance Manager Jorge Florez introduced the database as follows:

“The CFG database is a repository of 500+ resources (publications, webinars, etc.) curated by Global Integrity staff, and sourced largely from governance reform actors, thought leaders, and donor partners. It collates resources about pandemic-related fiscal governance in one place, to make it easy for users to find and access resources to inform their programmes, and to identify gaps for action in existing COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.”

Image for post
A sample of Global Integrity’s CFG Database (Source)

So far, the database has been used by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative to inform their development of their Covid-19 Monitor, and by other partners to identify guides and tools that they can replicate, and localise. Global Integrity also published a video series to highlight the database’s key features.

Staying Connected — Collaborative Action in 2020

The rapid closure in civic space that has followed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a challenging environment for anti-corruption advocates and journalists around the world, just at the time where scrutiny and public accountability are most paramount.

In this environment, international collaboration among advocates is more crucial than ever, and the development of coalitions and online resources like those above will be absolutely necessary in order to take transparency, accountability and participation strategies forward.

Open & Shut believes that it is imperative that global anti-corruption advocates not lose sight of the need to share knowledge and experiences of navigating this ongoing crisis. By taking resources such as the CFG Database, building upon them, and applying them to our local contexts, governments and powerful private actors can be held to account, and the opportunities for self-enrichment and the looting of public wealth can be taken out of this crisis altogether.