Photo: Babak Fakhamzadeh | Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic 

6 ways to start tackling corruption in aid

23 January 2017

There is a gathering attack against the rationale of aid, often using corruption as a reason for scaling back aid efforts and flows of money. In a recent blog, Robert Barrington, the UK executive director of Transparency International, gave a frank assessment of how corruption affects development. Here he looks at what NGOs and others can do to help overcome corruption - which must not be a reason to stop giving aid.

There is a reason that the Millennium Development Goals of 2000 had very mixed success and the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 include a goal on bribery and corruption: it is now more widely understood that if you don't tackle corruption, you are unlikely to achieve other development objectives. Donors and “delivery partners” (the large community of NGOs and private sector contractors) need to understand corruption and place it at the heart of their intervention strategies.

One of the most common responses to corruption encountered by Transparency International across the world is a sense of hopelessness, an inevitability that those in power will continue to plunder with impunity and those at the bottom will continue to suffer. However, we also have twenty years' experience of how corruption can be overcome. While there is no quick fix, there is a body of knowledge about how to do things better. Here are six suggestions about where to start:

  1. Admit there is a problem. There needs to be a realistic discussion of the problems posed by corruption and the damage it does to long-term development. Nothing will change unless the problem is acknowledged as being at the core of the challenges facing international development. That will need, at the top levels, a frank discussion between donors, the UN, NGOs and the private sector. It's difficult to have such a discussion when each party is terrified about how the other will react if they acknowledge the problem.
  2. Promote transparency and accountability. These are critical mechanisms in deterring and uncovering corruption. Nobody wants aid money to be spent on an army of accountants in London; but helping ensure there is a free press, a thriving civil society, access to data on budgets and spending and citizen participation (for example, through easy-access reporting mechanisms) are some of the ways to create better scrutiny over where the money goes. It's not just about money: the UK and others can use their political and diplomatic clout to push back against the many governments round the world that are repressing civil society.  Simple ideas like putting open contracting provisions in government contracts can make a big difference - and should be at the heart of the UK's new trade deals. And donors and NGOs need to have the capacity and accessibility for independent monitoring of their projects and track the use of their resources.
  3. Address the wider environment of corruption.  An independent judiciary, impartial law enforcement and parliamentary oversight over spending are some of the proven mechanisms for improving the wider environment - promoting integrity and good governance, and strengthening key institutions, will be a necessary part of clean aid.
  4. Also address project-level corruption. While donors may be wary of stepping into the wider political context, they can control how their own funds are spent. This might include a continuous and open dialogue with their grantees on corruption risks and challenges, prevention measures and reporting mechanisms. They might need national anti-corruption strategies for specific contexts (especially for fragile states) and to be able to undertake more regular monitoring that specifically looks out for corruption risks. Donors might have an automatic expectation that NGO or contractors should have systems in place for supporting and monitoring their delivery partners.  
  5. Practise what you preach. While DFID is praised as the gold standard for transparency, other UK government departments that spend aid money are notoriously opaque - including the Ministry of Defence and Foreign & Commonwealth Office. All UK government departments should include transparency and anti-corruption provisions within their contracts - not just on aid, but on all government spending. Perhaps most serious of all, the UK and its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies have become safe havens for the world's corrupt elite and their stolen wealth. NGOs and private sector contractors with aid contracts should also make sure they have their houses in order. We need to clean up our own back yard before telling others what to do.
  6. Make it a priority. The aid and development community has prioritised other important issues over corruption for too long. It's time to make it a central part of development planning.

Of course, there is a trade-off here.  Putting money into transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms will require a proportion of aid budgets to be spent on things which have less public and political appeal than anti-malarial drugs or primary education.  But if media pundits and politicians and other aid critics really want things to get better, they may need to recognise this is a worthwhile investment.* It will cost far, far less than the money currently lost through fraud and corruption; and holds out the tempting prospect that recipient countries might develop economically and attract more inward investment, so that less aid is required.

We mustn't give up on aid

It is hard to escape the proposition that it's time for a step change in approach by the international development community.  You can see why the media, and the public, and politicians want to give up.  Corruption is never defeated: like water, it flows into whatever cracks there are in the system, and some countries have very large cracks indeed. But we can reduce corruption and plan sensibly based on better understanding and stronger political will, building on the lessons from Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere.

We should always hold on to the thought of why aid budgets exist: because there is desperate poverty and inequality in the world.  So let's not punish poor people twice over: rather than giving in to corruption, we should be planning how to deliver overseas aid despite corruption.  

* Disclosure: TI-UK receives funds from aid donors including DFID. Our Annual Report & Accounts listing all donors and sums can be found on our website.

About the author

Robert Barrington
Transparency International UK

Robert Barrington is executive director of Transparency International UK.