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Harry Cassin
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The OECD Working Group on Bribery responds to Covid-19 bribery risks

Since the entry into force of the OECD Anti-bribery Convention more than twenty years ago, the OECD Working Group on Bribery (WGB), the body in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Convention, has been at the forefront of the fight against transnational bribery. Transparency International has branded its rigorous methodology as the “gold standard.” 

The WGB was able to address many critical moments from the dropping of the BAE investigation by the UK authorities to the low level of enforcement of countries like France and Sweden. In all these cases, the WGB, through peer reviews and peer pressure, managed to overcome the hurdle.

The double challenge faced today by the WGB is unprecedented. On the one hand, its working methods based on on-site visits and face-to-face discussions are, at least for the moment, non-actionable. The whole schedule of evaluations is now in question, starting with the 4th review of the United States that is supposed to take place next June. 

On the other hand, the greatest challenge that the WGB is facing is the temptation of several private and public actors to put the urgency, efficacy, and rapidity above everything else. 

For a few weeks we have seen a relaxation and degradation of public procurement rules. Gifts and donations policies without any clear framework, essential equipment being pushed through speedily administrative control and customs, and the set up of public-private partnerships. These are all objective elements of risk for any anti-bribery and anti-corruption specialist.

This is why the public statement issued on April 22 by the OECD Working Group is key. This is the first time that the WGB has issued a public statement on a general matter as, usually, public statements are issued with respect to specific country implementation.

The statement provides in particular that:

“As countries around the world work to combat the outbreak, the OECD Working Group on Bribery, which unites all 44 Parties to the Anti-Bribery Convention, is firmly committed to upholding its obligations to fight transnational bribery in all its forms and across sectors. It also calls on all countries around the globe to respect the rule of law, ensure integrity in public procurement, transparency, the effective protection of whistleblowers, and press freedom to fight all forms of corruption, especially corruption that could undermine the response to the pandemic. 

The OECD Working Group on Bribery is therefore going to examine the possible impact and consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on foreign bribery, as well as solutions to help countries strengthen their anti-bribery systems.”

The last sentence hints at not only a monitoring role but also a capacity building one for the WGB.

This OECD initiative ought to be read in conjunction with the recent letter sent by Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and Global Witness to the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The first striking thing is that letter was sent to the “Members of the IMF Executive Board” (i.e., the representatives of the IMF Members) rather than to the Managing Director or the Secretariat. In this context, the following paragraph is particularly relevant:

“We in no way want to slow down the IMF’s response to the crisis or prevent countries that need the money from receiving it. Rather, we wish to highlight the need for the Fund to establish basic measures to ensure that the money received by countries is used in a transparent and accountable manner to reduce the risks of misuse and corruption”.

The letter also includes a set of recommended anti-corruption measures in economic responses to Covid-19. These measures are detailed under four pillars:

  • Articulate and demonstrate IMF commitment to anti-corruption
  • Transparency in public procurement
  • Audits by internal audit bodies and third parties
  • Implementation of existing anti-corruption and anti-money laundering frameworks

Under each pillar, one can find a set of concrete measures. It is clear that the three NGOs wanted to provide a roadmap to the IMF and its Members and put them in front of their responsibilities.

So what do these recent developments tell us?

  1. Civil society and public authorities (the ones represented in the WGB) are rightly concerned about the opportunities for corruption that the current crisis offers. One could add the concerns expressed loud and clear by the head of the Italian anti-mafia national agency vis-à-vis the potential role of organized crime;
  2. Strategies need to be urgently developed at the company, sub-national, national or international level on how to prevent unscrupulous actors from taking advantage of the situation; 
  3. International Organizations and international fora must play a key role in ensuring that the fight against corruption and bribery remains high on the agenda; in addition to the OECD and the IMF, one would expect strong statements but also concrete action from other bodies, in particular, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group.

Covid-19 is an invisible pandemic, but so is corruption. Let us make sure that to fight an evil we do not provide grounds and opportunities to another evil.  

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  1. Fantastic article. Thank you very much. There is no doubt that Covid-19 is a drama, but corruption is undoubtedly a significant drama, responsible for so much suffering and death in the world for too long. Most of the time, we do not know so directly the victims of so much pain and injustice, but they are there. I hope that, as you say, the fight against Covid-19 will not be to the detriment of the fight against corruption. I hope that this crisis will make us even more aware of what is worthwhile and empower us to move up a notch in integrity.

  2. Excellent article!

  3. Excellent post – thank you for helping raise awareness of the risk of expediency over diligence. With appropriate deployment of technology and experience, we can overcome procedural challenges to achieve both goals (speed and diligence).

  4. As they say: “what gets measured, gets managed”.

    I think it’s a great idea to accelerate the efforts to control bribery and corruption during a time when money is flowing fast and free. However, the effort needs to be properly planned and the successes/failures need to be measured and communicated. This has been a problem in the past for the G20 membership. See here:

    The activity needs to focus on measurable and achievable goals.

    While there is a global frenzy to place blame on one country (which may or may not be appropriate), we as a global society are not thinking intelligently about: 1) why were we not prepared?; and 2) how do we prepare for future events? Finding out how and why the pandemic started is important, but that won’t completely address the issue of ill-preparedness.

    Perhaps if countries had met their commitments to fight corruption than the world economy wouldn’t be spending at least $3.6 trillion per year on corrupt activity. See here:

    $3.6 trillion per year would have gone a long way to beefing up our health and social services, to deal with the current pandemic.

    We have to start getting better organised and actually achieving results (no more excuses). We also need to focus more on the corporations paying the bribes.

    This isn’t one country’s failure, its a global failure.

  5. A very interesting article. Everybody is aware of the drama the Covid-19 has caused all over the world, but corruption and bribery have caused more the last decay.

  6. Great articule due to the emergency Companies and goverments just relax their anticorrupcion Controls. México is not an exemption

  7. Thank you Nicola for your interesting and useful article. I agree that besides the OECD also other multilateral bodies should take up this item in their agendas

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