Why the Prime Minister’s summit must set a new gold standard in the fight against corruption

Saturday, 12 March 2016 12:15 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fighting corruption is critical in the fight against extreme poverty and securing stability and prosperity.

Take Nigeria for example. The country is abundant in natural resource wealth. But in Africa’s largest economy and most populous country, a third of children under five in this country are malnourished  and the average life expectancy is less than 53 years.  Why? Because poor governance and corruption have hindered infrastructure development and social service delivery, slowing economic growth and keeping a majority of the population mired in extreme poverty.

Not only does corruption lead to huge waste and undermine the provision of public services but it fuels instability and conflict – in some cases frustration with government coupled with a lack of education and jobs increases support for extremism. There is a lot of work to do, spurring and encouraging leaders at all levels of government, business and civil society to stand up to corruption and build the trust and integrity needed to fuel economic growth, justice and prosperity.

David Cameron genuinely cares about these issues. From the G8 in 2013 and throughout his premiership, he has championed the golden thread of development. And this is an important moment to shift the dial one of the most pressing issues of our time.

But to be effective the summit must deliver not just a few ad-hoc commitments but a coherent vision for how countries should fight corruption: a fair play standard.

This vision could lay out the policy areas that countries should implement to further the fight against corruption, make it easier for citizens to follow the money from resources to results, and thus make it more difficult for corrupt people to spend their loot on mansions in Manhattan or Malibu.

The UK has done the right thing on making information on who owns companies public. The World Bank’s landmark study ‘The Puppet Masters’ showed that 70% of the world’s largest corruption scandals involved anonymous shell firms. Solving this problem closes one of the supercharged getaway cars for the corrupt who can make their dirty money clean while hiding their true identity.

Other countries should follow suit but to credibly pick up the phone and ask other countries to do this, UK diplomats will need to sort out the elephant in the room – secrecy around who truly owns companies registered in the British Overseas Territories, a favoured haunt of the corrupt. The UK has the constitutional power to forge a path in these territories and set a new global norm. It should use it.

The summit should address due diligence requirements for large businesses – so if they are found to be dealing with corrupt companies or people they can no longer wash their hands as if they didn’t know. If that’s not an excuse when a citizen forgets to file their tax return it shouldn’t be an excuse for business.

Thirdly, we need much more transparency around where public money comes from – particularly the payments from commodity traders listed in London or Geneva to state owned oil companies for oil cargo. From 2011 to 2013, the total value of sales by national oil companies equalled more than half of combined government revenues for sub-Saharan Africa’s 10 ten oil producers and more than 10 times international aid to these countries. Transparency in tax payments and other financial details (Country by Country Reporting) should also be extended to EU listed firms.

Finally, citizens need to know where government money is going. This means transparency in budget processes as well as opening up procurement processes so we know that taxpayers are getting a good deal. Governments spend vast sums of money - about $9.5 trillion or 15% of GDP - every year on deals and contracts to deliver goods and services to their citizens. When, where and how this money is spent is largely invisible. This is bad for competition, bad for taxpayers, and lethal for public integrity.

The Fair Play Standard is an ambitious agenda and will require bold leadership from all involved. But with decisive action this summit could set the tone for the international debate for the next 5 years. To miss it would be a great shame for the UK, but most of all for the world’s poorest people.