Anti-Corruption Summit Should Go Beyond Lip Service and Provide Room for Civil Society to Function in the Most Affected Countries

12/05/2016 10:40 | Updated 12 May 2016

David Cameron will today be smarting from the faux pas of making an acutely embarrassing indiscretion under the glance of cameras. Just days before the 2016 anti-corruption summit, the UK Prime Minister will be hosting, he was caught on camera in discussion with the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, describing two of the countries sending delegates to London as "fantastically corrupt countries".

The statement had drown reactions across the world - not least in Afghanistan and Nigeria, the two countries Cameron cited in his now infamous gaffe - with the British Prime Minister trending on Twitter.

The incident should however, not overshadow or distract us from the merits and objectives of the summit. Ahead of Thursday's meeting, Cameron stated that the main goal of the summit is to 'galvanise a global response to tackle corruption as well as agreeing a package of actions to tackle corruption across the board'.

Deemed as a 'first summit of its kind', the summit will see the convergence of world leaders, captains of industry and civil society leaders gather in an attempt to develop practical steps to: 'expose corruption so there is nowhere to hide, punish the perpetrators and support those affected by corruption, and drive out the culture of corruption wherever it exists'. While commendable and ambitious, these efforts are likely to be futile in effectively fighting corruption if they don't account for the stark realities of the contexts in which the changes will be effected. Cameron mentioned Afghanistan and Nigeria - two countries whose challenges with graft are well documented - but there are many more countries that present grim contexts for ordinary citizens and civil society organisations to fully and freely function.

We have seen that in most of such countries, governments there have introduced legislative and constitutional curbs to various fundamental rights and freedoms. Such restrictive measures include limitations to civil society organisations' fundraising activities and mobilisation abilities. Other forms of the restrictions include press censorship and muzzling of media, blocking of social media and threats to the activities and lives of civilians.

In its most recent State of Civil Society Report, CIVICUS - the world alliance for citizen participation - documented significant attacks on the fundamental civil society rights of free association, free assembly and free expression in 96 countries. CIVICUS reports that these have been particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, post Communist states in Central Asia and Eastern Europe and South East Asia. According to the organisation, in the most affected countries, the obstruction of civil liberties and freedom of speech on corruption matters is becoming worse. Simply put, today the media and civil society are struggling more than ever to speak out on corruption.

On a brighter note, despite these limitations, we have seen some really encouraging and successful citizen and civil society efforts at holding governments accountable in recent years. Examples include the Examples include the Open Government Partnership (OGP) - a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

Aid agencies and charities have similarly put the anti-corruption agenda at the top of their priorities. At World Vision UK for example, we have been supporting social accountability initiatives in 11 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America over the past 10 years - making some tangible changes and drawing out vital lessons. We believe that in future, technological innovation and social media will increasingly become essential tools in the fight against corruption given their proven potential to reduce opportunities for wrongdoing, empower citizens to highlight illegal practices, and enhance government transparency and accountability. While media and technology will not be the ultimate panacea by themselves, when fortified with well -intentioned complimentary policy reforms, they can make a significant contribution to the fight for good governance.

Collectively, some of these citizen and civil society-led initiatives have culminated in positive development outcomes such as more responsive local and national governments. The efforts have also become the spotlights exposing governments' challenges and corrupt activities, thereby stimulating the empowerment of marginalised groups - especially women and girls. The positive outcome from such exertions have ensured that national and local governments respond to the concerns of the most poor in some of the most difficult and fragile states in the world. From this perspective, such initiatives hold great potential as a means to reduce corruption but also as a great contribution to the growth, and consolidation of democratic institutions and practices.

Against this backdrop, Thursday's summit provides a real opportunity to take stock on what works, create a standard for policing and monitoring corruption and also highlight good practise. Ultimately, we want to see leaders giving citizens the right tools to fight and expose corruption. Unless governments develop firm positions that will enable favourable environments to prevail within he most affected countries, current moves by governments will lead to serious tensions and reversal of gains that have been previously realised.