Was the Anti-Corruption Summit a Game-changer? Not Likely

13/05/2016 15:00

David Cameron has been talking up the impact of the anti-corruption summit that he chaired on 12 May. A look at the summit's communique reveals just how hard it is to get everyone to talk the same language.

Representatives from over 40 countries met in London on 12 May with a view to coming up with a coherent international strategy for tackling corruption. The communique that has come out of the summit is not short on hopes and expectations, but a look at the details reveals a disappointing lack of agreement on how precisely to move the agenda forward. There is a clear preference for stressing the importance of many existing initiatives - the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), for example, gets 11 mentions, whilst the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) pops up 5 times - and for insisting that better co-operation, treating corruption as a top priority and showing a greater resolve to root out corruption practices will help mitigate corruption's effects.

But we know from previous experience that statements of intent alone don't get us very far. The UNCAC and initiatives such as the OECD's anti-bribery convention have been around for a long time, and yet the evidence that anything has substantially changed as a result is, at best, contested. That is not the fault of the institutions that oversee these initiatives, it is the responsibility of governments who haven't been able to do justice to their laudable aims.

Eric Pickles, the UK's anti-corruption champion, claimed at a pre-summit event at the Commonwealth Secretariat on 11 May, that the leaking of the Panama Papers was a game-changer. Yet the communique released on 12 May shows how difficult it is going to be to get everyone not just singing from a new hymn sheet, but also recognising that a new song is indeed even necessary.

The attempt to improve transparency over who actually owns, and profits from, companies ('beneficial ownership') has noticeable caveats. Signatories might well claim that information will be "collected, available and fully accessible" but it will only be available "to those who have a legitimate need for it". This "may include" public registers. Bet your bottom dollar it won't in places that see secrecy as part of their business model.

The current international framework continues to be lauded, even though it is clear that it has not been up to the task thus far. FATF and the Global Forum on Transparency and the Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, for example, have been tasked with developing "initial proposals" that will help to "improve the implementation of international standards on transparency". This is not game-changer territory.

The much vaunted attempts to make the life of the facilitators of corruption - the lawyers, the accountants, the estate agents, the other providers of professional services - more difficult also sound depressingly sterile. The signatories are going to "work with each other and the private sector" to drive these middle men out. How? We don't know. Sport, too, gets a couple of paragraphs, but simply to state that national and international governing bodies need to do more to "implement high standards of transparency and good governance". In other news, the resident of the Vatican continues to be Catholic.
Where there are concrete commitments, it is also not clear how they will affect change. The new 'International Anti-Corruption Coordination Centre' sounds encouraging, but it is not clear how it will work other than "worki[ing] closely with relevant international and national organisations". The proposed 'Global Asset Recovery Forum' also sounds promising, particularly as it will be focussed on helping Nigeria, Ukraine, Tunisia and Sri Lanka in helping get stolen assets returned. Again though, more on how it will do this needs to be forthcoming.

It is easy to be critical of summits and the communiques that come out of them. There is always lots of politics involved, as different agendas meet and different expectations clash. Perhaps the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit really will be the start of something new. But given what the leaders have been able to agree on, it might make sense to keep the bunting on hold for just a little while longer.