The Independent Commission on Aid Impact has today published a report on 'DFID's Approach to Anti-Corruption and its Impact on the Poor.' It puts the spotlight on the aid issue that dare not speak its name. It's not surprising that most donors are at a loss when faced with the problem of corruption. Having tried to tackle it for twenty years and in more than a hundred countries, Transparency International knows how difficult it can be - particularly in the world's poorest and most fragile states where DFID's remit runs.
Is the ICAI report right in giving DFID an amber/red score? I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, DFID has done more on corruption than most donors; has tried to make sure that corruption is minimised within its own sphere of influence; the Secretary of State has spoken persuasively and perceptively in public about the need to tackle corruption; and the Prime Minister has taken a strong lead on governance and transparency in several international forums.
But the truth is that more can and must be done. If poverty is to be tackled, donors must combat the corruption that both causes and perpetuates poverty. It is clearly much more challenging for DFID to address corruption among some of its external partners, particularly governments that are themselves systemically corrupt. There is no doubt that is politically very difficult, but until donor governments find a way to address this, the lives of the poor won't improve.
Here are six things that could be done at policy level:
1. Make corruption a priority. Ensure that the relevant officials and DFID partners recognise corruption for what it is -- a key determinant in the success of achieving fairly much all other development and environmental objectives.
2. Coordinate. Not just with other governments, but within our own government - starting with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence - to make sure that, in situations like Afghanistan and peacekeeping operations, the efforts of the UK and others are not working against each other. Companies can coordinate too: we need more collective action by companies, which often have the clout to generate change when working together.
3. Support those trying to tackle corruption. That's not just civil society groups like TI, it's ordinary citizens - give them access to data so they can hold their governments to account, give them mechanisms to report corruption, support them when they are victims of injustice.
4. Don't let British companies be complicit. Every time a company pays a bribe it perpetuates the system that causes misery for ordinary people. Yet the government has starved the Serious Fraud Office of resources and is now talking about abolishing it.
5. Don't turn a blind eye. Why can rich foreign officials with no visible means of income other than their salaries buy expensive properties in London and educate their children through our private schools and universities?
6. Make corruption one of the new Sustainable Development Goals. That will ensure it is a global priority - the UK cannot act alone on this.
At local level, much more can be done - our chapters throughout the world have a plethora of success stories. One example is the cases that flow through our legal advisory centres, which help citizens report corruption and offer advice and support. Citizens are the victims of corruption, and often want to find ways to fight back. It's dangerous, as we know from the death of our colleague last year at TI Rwanda, and the threats faced by our chapters in Sri Lanka, Montenegro, Hungary, Russia and too many other places. When the rule of law collapses, the potential solutions diminish even further, but they can still be found.
One solution comes quickly to mind, but should be banished equally quickly. The answer is not to stop giving aid. That punishes poor people twice: with corrupt government, and by taking away the funds needed for health, education and the other Millennium Development Goals. If aid itself is perpetuating corruption, then the answer is to seek to reform institutions and deter and punish corrupt individuals, not to stop the services on which the poor depend.
ICAI have produced an important report. It will challenge not only DFID but the entire donor community. It is time to move the global anti-corruption response to a new level.
Disclosure: Transparency International UK receives funding from DFID for our Defence & Security Programme.