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The Scourge of the Developing World

UNDP’s Fight to Stamp out Corruption in its Areas of Greatest Impact
A perspective from Elodie Beth, UNDP Programme Advisor

2018-10-10 15:32 Wednesday

The fight against corruption is almost always framed in moral terms; the immorality of bribery, money laundering, and related behaviors are apparent to almost everyone. That analysis is not sufficient for Elodie Beth, however, who has more to say on the topic. She knows all too well that corruption is ruinous for society, and that it undermines economic and social development in some of the world’s poorest nations.

“The investment gap for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is 2.5 trillion USD per year,” says Ms. Beth, who is an anti-corruption expert with the UN Development Programme (UNDP). “The best estimates suggest that corruption costs developing countries 1.26 trillion U.S. dollars annually, half the gap for meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Eliminate corruption, and we would have made enormous headway in eliminating poverty.”

True to this extraordinary revelation, her work at UNDP is pragmatic rather than moralistic. She hopes to make tangible progress in fostering societies that are free of demoralizing, self-defeating corruption, instead of simply paying lip service to the evils of corruption, a strategy that makes little impact in this all-too-important struggle.

“The best estimates suggest that corruption costs developing countries 1.26 trillion U.S. dollars annually, half the gap for meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Eliminate corruption, and we would have made enormous headway in eliminating poverty.”

Ms. Beth is a veteran anti-corruption professional with extensive experience in a diverse range of environments. She previously worked as Head of Unit in the Integrity Division of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as well as for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in charge of its Anti-Corruption Mentor Programme in Jordan.

She has now served as advisor on governance and transparency at UNDP for five years. Based in Bangkok, her work takes her across Asia, and from that unique vantage point, she’s observed successes and setbacks, but never wavered from the belief that education, good will, and the proper policies, can lead to real progress in combating corruption.

Ms. Beth spoke at the 6th Anti-Corruption Compliance Asia Pacific Summit 2018, on June 21st in Singapore, detailing the UN’s efforts to prevent corruption in the private sector. In an exclusive interview with Duxes, she delved into the intricate world of anti-corruption advocacy, confounding some commonly held notions about the nature of corruption, and offering cautious optimism about recent progress underway in Asia.

UNDP and Ms. Beth have identified specific targets for reducing the prevalence of bribery and corruption, in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but she believes that it would be wrong to simply label corruption as a numbers issue.

“We don’t regard anti-corruption as merely a matter of designing technical law enforcement solutions,” Ms. Beth explained. “Corruption is a systemic phenomenon that requires a variety of approaches.”

First and foremost, Ms. Beth believes in the transformative power of educating the public on the dangers of corruption, which can facilitate dramatic changes in the public perception of related issues. It is only when individuals understand how corruption negatively affects their daily lives that they will work to counteract it, by keeping institutions accountable for their actions.

She cites South Korea as a country that has been changed for the better in recent decades, largely due to the efforts of anti-corruption activists. Corruption used to be tolerated at all levels of society, from the world of business, to politics, even down to the education system. South Korea now finds itself near the top of most major economic and standard of living indices, in no small part due to the shift in societal attitudes. Public outcry over allegations of corruption leveled against former President Park Geun-hye, resulted in her impeachment and a long prison sentence. The new administration has made anti-corruption a major priority, promoting a campaign to root out influence peddling in South Korea’s well-connected conglomerates. None of the recent high-level political developments would have been possible without years of patient, bottom-up advocacy across South Korean society.

In Southeast Asia, the region that draws most of Ms. Beth’s attention, she is optimistic that social attitudes are slowly changing, as was the case with South Korea, but also mindful of substantial hurdles. She identified high-level corruption as an area of grave concern, as elites that have monopolized political and economic power remain largely unresponsive to public uproar.

However, though scandals such as President Park’s capture most headlines, petty bribery is in fact the greater challenge for the developing world, and remains persistent in Southeast Asia, leading to cyclical, seemingly endless poverty traps. To both the bribe-takers and bribe-givers, it can appear like their behavior is the normal, rational course of action in a hopeless situation. With low pay and morale in the civil service, and a need for basic services, the officeholder or public servant is merely monetizing his or her position in a predictable way, and in the process facilitating a positive outcome.

But it’s precisely that line of thinking that raises the barriers of entry for everyone. When a trip to the doctor, or provision of a basic service, must be accompanied by a bribe, it serves as a tax on the poorest in society who can least afford to pay it. As Ms. Beth is apt to point out, there are few social issues that are not affected by corruption, from equal justice under the law, to environmental protection. The damage to society far exceeds the lost wealth and opportunity that the statistics would indicate.

There are few social issues that are not affected by corruption, from equal justice under the law, to environmental protection. The damage to society far exceeds the lost wealth and opportunity that the statistics would indicate.

”We always say that corruption has a human face”, Ms. Beth said. “It deprives access to medical care, keeps children from attending school, and immiserates countless numbers of people. However, because the effect is indirect, it is challenging to demonstrate the tangible damage done by corruption, and that is our greatest obstacle to overcome.”

An effective anti-corruption strategy also requires the implementation of policies that complement the work of civil society. UNDP’s mission has been buttressed by the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and U.K. Bribery Act. Both laws have made important strides in addressing private sector-initiated bribery around the world, but the other side of the coin, the presence of officials willing to solicit bribes in the first place, requires more diligent action.

Logic would dictate that raising public sector pay in developing countries would be part of the solution. Surprisingly, Ms. Beth maintains that raising wages for government employees has little to no effect on the prevalence of corruption if this is not part of a more comprehensive solution. “Our experience suggests that raising the salary of civil servants can even make the problem worse, if the bribery scheme is already in place”, she said.

“Our experience suggests that raising the salary of civil servants can even make the problem worse, if the bribery scheme is already in place.”

Instead, she advocates comprehensive civil service reform, which restructures the incentive and promotion mechanisms for public servants solely according to merit. More than that, officials must work in an environment in which they are trusted, and treated with respect. Ms. Beth and UNDP have worked closely with the government of Myanmar to develop and implement the Myanmar Civil Service Reform Strategic Action Plan 2017-2020, which attempts to strengthen the governance of the civil service, implement merit-based pay, promote a “results-oriented” and “people-centric culture”, as well as enhance transparency. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and prior to the reforms a majority of public servants believed that at least some of their colleagues accept bribes. Ms. Beth is hopeful that UNDP’s collaboration with the government can get the ball rolling, as the country struggles to free itself from the constraints of corruption.

Reforms such as those initiated in Myanmar can be applied on a case-by-case basis, but require painstaking effort to account for the social, economic, and cultural features of each country. Anti-corruption professionals also depend heavily on broad international agreements that establish universal principles from which to build on. One of the instruments in Ms. Beth’s toolbox is the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), a multilateral treaty signed by 186 countries, which serves as the most comprehensive international anti-corruption agreement yet implemented.

Although UNCAC is not as stringent as other conventions that have a narrower focus, it has nonetheless triggered a wave of stricter anti-corruption laws in jurisdictions across the globe. But in Ms. Beth’s view, what makes UNCAC unique, aside from its broad scope, is its emphasis on prevention. UNCAC calls for the creation of anti-corruption bod(ies), in tandem with efforts to promote integrity in both the public and private sector and the active engagement of civil society, reflecting UNDP’s understanding that the fight against corruption cannot be won by law enforcement alone.

On other issues such as asset recovery, the process by which jurisdictions can reclaim money siphoned away from the national treasury by corrupt actors, the solution can be relatively straightforward. Chapter V of UNCAC establishes “asset recovery” as a fundamental principle, and outlines a framework for tracing, freezing, and recovering funds that have been stolen. Developing countries, which are stung disproportionality by high-level embezzlement and money laundering, regard UNCAC’s provisions as groundbreaking. UNCAC can assist a developing country in recovering tens of millions of dollars embezzled offshore, and courts can hand out lengthy sentences, but no mechanism in place is a substitute for relentless advocacy.

UNDP’s work is in filling in the gaps to ensure the implementation of international legal conventions, and working with various actors – from government, private sector, civil society and the broader community – to build integrity alliances.

UNDP’s work, therefore, is in filling in the gaps to ensure the implementation of international legal conventions, and working with various actors – from government, private sector, civil society and the broader community – to build integrity alliances. UNDP has established a number of partnerships with organizations such as the ADB, the OECD and the Open Government Partnership Support Unit. For example, UNDP is joining forces with ADB and OECD as part of the Anti-corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific, which is a gathering of policymakers from 31 member countries comprising of two networks – one specialized in preventive measures while the other brings law enforcement officers to discuss important cases. In most instances, Ms. Beth’s work happens at the country level – providing technical backstopping for a specific reform in a country or mobilizing various actors in the promotion of good governance and the fight against corruption.

Indeed, as Ms. Beth highlighted, fighting corruption is patient work. Progress is measured in increments, and diligent work may only be rewarded decades later, when a future generation reaps the benefits of a fairer and more prosperous society. Though the task seems never-ending, the promotion of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption is a struggle that we should all engage to ensure sustainable development in our societies.

For further information, please contact:
Ms. Cindy Cui
Tel.: +86 21 5258 8005 Ext. 8253
E-mail: cindy.cui@duxes.cn