We must take tough action against corruption

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Corruption, like temptation, exists everywhere, but in poor countries it can kill. Money meant for drugs for a sick child, or to build a hospital, can be siphoned off into private bank accounts or to build a luxury house. At the World Bank Spring Meeting on Sunday, I will be calling for a new international framework for tough, effective and consistent action to tackle this corruption, not least because as development and finance ministers we have a shared responsibility to ensure that the extra resources from debt cancellation and from increased aid, genuinely go to help the poor.

If all poor people lived in well-governed countries this would be much easier. But they don’t. Poor people live in countries affected by conflict, in countries with few resources and poorly paid public sector workers, and where governments and institutions are often weakest. It is here that the risk of corruption greatest.

That is why the fight against corruption should not be seen in isolation from strengthening governments and institutions. This can be done through supporting better public financial management, a stronger and more independent judiciary, lively civil society, and transparency and accountability in government. There has been progress in recent years, with developing countries increasingly taking on their responsibility to do better. In Sierra Leone, a country recovering from serious conflict and where corruption is a major problem, expenditure tracking surveys show that while in 2002 only 5 per cent of drugs reached district health units, a year later this had increased to 70 per cent.

At the same time we have to recognise that it will be very difficult to eliminate corruption entirely. There are many countries where there is good political governance and yet corruption persists. Good systems cannot perfect human nature. So we need to take steps to address it; such as proper safeguards and a rigorous system of audit and inspection so that we can have a high degree of confidence that our money – taxpayers’ money – is being used properly for its intended purpose.

So how should we respond in those cases where, despite these safeguards, we have a problem? We must take tough and uncompromising action, to prevent any repetition and send a clear message that corruption will not be tolerated. Those guilty of criminal offences should be prosecuted and punished.

Some however would go further, and argue that we should not work in countries where the risk of corruption is high, or should cut or suspend our aid altogether in the event of a scandal. I think that view is mistaken. Why should a child be denied education, or a mother healthcare, just because some in their government are corrupt? Walking away from our responsibilities to poor people is not the right thing to do. It is only by continuing involvement and presence that we can help bring about the necessary improvements in governance and institutions.

But tackling corruption while continuing to do development work is difficult. It poses dilemmas for us. How can we punish those who are guilty without punishing innocent poor people? What should be the scale of our response? What conditions should we set? When and how quickly should we act? I think it will help us to be more effective, if we have an internationally agreed framework to guide us in these difficult judgements.

The Spring Meetings in Washington provide an opportunity to make further progress on this. The World Bank has provided leadership since Jim Wolfensohn spoke out against the ‘cancer of corruption’ in 1996. Paul Wolfowitz, is strongly committed to fighting it. The World Bank should now consult widely in preparing a new framework for tackling corruption, to be presented to the Annual Meetings in Singapore in September. It is a vital part of our campaign to make poverty history.

This writer is the UK Secretary of State for International Development

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