Disasters present a perfect storm for corruption: a surge in public spending at a time when oversight is weakened. This pattern, often seen during crises like epidemics and tsunamis, has already emerged in numerous countries hit by COVID-19—from Bangladesh and Colombia to Italy and Uganda. But there are steps the international community can take to address the coronavirus pandemic fallout and reduce future risk.

10 to 25 percent of global health spending is lost every year to corruption.

A startling 10 to 25 percent of global health spending is lost every year to corruption. Graft hollows out health systems, leaving them ill-equipped for emergencies and lowering trust in government. Bribery can also restrict access to testing, allowing a virus to spread more widely.

Yet in spite of the demonstrated costs of weak health systems, global assistance continues to address symptoms instead of root causes. The vast majority of funding from the U.S. government goes toward treating specific diseases rather than helping partners design procurement, logistics, and personnel systems that will be less vulnerable to leakage. To prevent future corruption and safeguard other aid, donors could direct a meaningful proportion of health assistance—perhaps 25 percent—toward strengthening health systems.

Global assistance continues to address symptoms instead of root causes.

Improving health governance will increase local resiliency to corruption, but international donors and financial institutions must also do their part to increase transparency and accountability. Organizations such as U4 and Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime have encouraged donors to publish budget allocations online, establish corruption reporting hotlines, elevate the role of civil society monitors, and use their leverage to extract reforms from governments. But each set of recommendations varies slightly in its content, leaving donors to pick and choose which calls they heed. Advocates could have a greater impact if they instead coalesce around a unified global standard for mitigating corruption risks in disaster assistance, which would help donors prioritize reforms and generate political pressure.

As lockdowns ease, grievances about how governments handled the pandemic—including exposés of corruption—will likely generate more mass protests. In some cases, political transitions will follow, with new reformers promising to tackle corruption.

When these brief windows of opportunity emerge, donors should surge support to fledging governments.

When these brief windows of opportunity emerge, donors should surge support to fledging governments as they seek to deliver on anticorruption commitments, as well as civil society and media groups who can sustain public momentum. This may require creating flexible funding streams so donors can be more politically responsive, as envisioned by the bipartisan CROOK Act, which is pending in the U.S. Congress. Before such a window opens, donors can also help local leaders design strong reform platforms and build diverse coalitions. Assistance streams should support both established nongovernmental organizations that adapt creatively to the pandemic and new mutual aid networks that could become powerful grassroots forces.

By:
  • Abigail Bellows