Can graft risks be mitigated not hindering Covid-19 response

Ed Olowo-Okere
As governments respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, the need for speed can lead to short-circuiting the normal procedures designed to control corruption risks. The circumstances of the pandemic can make traditional oversight even more challenging. Moreover, the nature of an emergency response itself can open new avenues for corruption. At its worst, corruption could lead to unnecessary suffering and even loss of lives by diverting scarce resources from the people and places who need them most. It could also entrench elite privilege, widen inequality, and undermine trust in the institutions of accountability. To help guide policy makers, the World Bank’s Governance team has prepared a policy brief on Ensuring Integrity in Government’s Response to COVID-19.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase corruption risks and practices that contribute to illicit financial flows, and may also introduce new risks.
As governments grapple with the pandemic, the first response involves efforts to blunt the health impact. Rapidly procuring medical supplies, moving them to intended points of service delivery, ensuring rapid customs clearance of imported medicines, and mobilizing additional health care workers all present opportunities for corruption.
In poorer developing countries and in fragile contexts, economic shutdowns can cause some people to lose their sources of income; they also have a direct impact on food supplies and availability. Government actions that provide vital lifelines—cash transfers to individuals, food purchase and distribution to the poor, and support to struggling formal and informal private sector entities—are vulnerable to corruption.
The adoption of emergency powers to address the health crisis and maintain public safety also presents a concern. Strict rules mandating quarantine, isolation and curfews, and prohibition of economic activity in many countries entail mobilizing police and other authorities for enforcement. There are opportunities for the enforcers to seek and receive rents in this process. Moreover, the adoption of unfettered emergency powers and surveillance technologies risk undermining institutional checks and balances, weakening the authority and independence of accountability institutions, and shrinking civic space.
Recognizing risks is the first, easier, step. Coming up with approaches to deal with those risks without hindering a government’s response is tougher but possible.
Given the unprecedented nature of the crisis and the need for cooperation across agencies and levels of government, oversight mechanisms could be compromised. This can be resolved by specifying in every piece of legislation or executive order which agencies will be responsible for oversight. Similarly, some measure of ex-post accountability can be ensured by activating explicit processes and protocols for documenting emergency spending, including procurement transactions, receipt of goods and supplies, and tracking of the delivery of supplies involving central and decentralized authorities.
There is no excuse for weak transparency – in fact, more transparency is needed. Governments can build trust by establishing rules regarding how and where information on emergency spending is published, and by following those rules without fail. Governments should publicly disclose all grants, procurements or provision of emergency funds over a set amount within a specified number of days after funds are released and/or used. Clear rules on eligibility are needed to mitigate the risk of corruption skewing the distribution of financial support that is meant to help struggling firms and individuals.
With speed leading to fewer protections upfront to prevent corruption, monitoring and feedback need to be even faster. Shortening feedback loops by increasing the frequency of audits and spending reviews can help.
Grievance redress mechanisms are needed to ensure that communities and intended program beneficiaries know what to do when they do not receive their expected payments.
To address the abuse and overreach of extraordinary powers, it is important to specify upfront the scope and duration of those powers.
With all these measures, diligent follow-through and communication are needed to ensure accountability and maintain trust. Temporary provisions, adopted in the name of speed, also need to be reversed as the emergency subsides.
It is also important to maintain focus on the broader anti-corruption agenda. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase corruption risks and practices that contribute to illicit financial flows, and may also introduce new risks, driven by theft and diverted funds, such as the use of shell companies and other anonymous structures registered in tax havens to secure public contracts and loans or subsidies, among others. Policy responses to address these risks, such as beneficial ownership transparency and the enforcement of anti-money laundering standards in the financial sector, acquire even greater relevance in the context of COVID-19.
Corruption is but one of the challenges facing overstretched public sectors. The risks are formidable but not insurmountable if there is a will to mitigate them.
(Ed Olowo-Okere is the Director, Governance Global Practice, World Bank Group)