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Corruption Meets Covid-19 – A Double Whammy

Despite the significant progress on the crackdown on corruption in the last decade, the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled possible corrupt practices perpetrated by some governments. In an exclusive interview with The IAS Gazette, UNDP’s anti-corruption advisor, Dr Anga Timilsina, revealed an ‘implementation gap’.

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Despite the significant progress on the crackdown on corruption in the last decade, there continues to be a huge gap between anti-corruption laws, institutions and their effectiveness.

In an exclusive interview with The IAS Gazette, Dr Anga Timilsina revealed that there is an ‘implementation gap’. 

And this continues and in some cases has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic where the impact of corruption has affected the already vulnerable and marginalised populations, including the poor, women and children.

Elaborating, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Global Programme Advisor on Anti-Corruption said that these corruption risks became more apparent during the public health crisis. 

The effects of these practices were felt in several areas such as healthcare services, procurement processes, humanitarian and welfare assistance, and the usage of government funds and budgets.

“Disruptions and emergencies during Covid-19 present many opportunities for corrupt actors to take advantage of the crisis for private gain.”

For example, the misuse of power could manifest through clientelism and cronyism.

“Some governments have imposed or extended the state of emergency to secure the power to make decisions, and in some instances, there are reports that those who are in positions of power have also bent the regulatory, policy and legal institutions for their private benefit,” added Dr Timilsina.

“Cases of COVID-19-related corruption scandals can already be observed in countries across the world.”

While most countries have right-to-information laws, asset declaration provisions, conflict of interest regulations, codes of conduct, anti-corruption policies etc., he believes the issue continues to be “a major problem” if they are not effectively implemented and reinforced.

Noting that corruption is a moving target where its manifestations and forms change over time, the veteran diplomat shared that while many developed countries may have more robust institutions and mechanisms to prevent and combat corruption, the forms of corruption in those countries become more sophisticated. “They could come in the form of the issuing of tax havens, opaque banking, bank secrecy, and transparency of beneficial ownership etc.” 

CHALLENGES TO TACKLING CORRUPTION

Having provided governance and anti-corruption technical support to more than 40 countries, the 46-year-old UN official shared that while some of the common challenges include political financing, the lack of capacity, the lack of political will and integrity, widespread impunity and overall coordination problems among various key anti-corruption stakeholders, the biggest obstacle was still to convince a government to combat corruption.

Explaining that projects at the country level are cost-shared by governments, he said: “You cannot convince a Prime Minister or a minister of a country by telling them that you want to help them to fight corruption because the country is corrupt. As a development partner, our meaningful engagement should go beyond naming and shaming.

“You have to convince (them) that if (they) tackle corruption, it will help make service delivery more efficient, and this will help gain the trust of people. You have to find a win-win situation, which is often challenging.”

Having joined the UNDP in 2007, the Nepalese credits his experiences back home for his immense passion for human development.

“Corruption is a bottleneck to development. Monies lost through bribery and corruption could be channelled to build more schools and hospitals, saving the lives of children, tackling the climate crisis and managing disasters.

“Coming from a developing country, I know what it means to struggle with poverty and backwardness. For me, every day is a gift in the sense of whatever I can contribute to humanity,” he mused.

“(However), tackling corruption is not just about money. It’s also about ethics, integrity and trust, which is the backbone of any society to survive as a civilisation.”

Dr Timilsina in Abu Dhabi, UAE for the Conference of the State Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). | Photo Credit: Anga Timilsina

Passion aside, tackling corruption is hardly a straightforward task, he explained.

While his personal definition of corruption refers to the misuse of entrusted power for private gain, the notion of it may differ between developing and developed countries.

But one thing for sure – the risks of corruption will definitely be present in big defence deals, big infrastructure projects and procurement processes in both developed and developing countries, he added.

Fortunately, programmes such as the Anti-Corruption for Peaceful and Inclusive Societies  (ACPIS), UNDP’s global anti-corruption programme, are being put in place to mitigate the situation by increasing global awareness and meaningfully engaging with government partners.

Highlighting some of its achievements, Dr Timilsina said that the ACPIS programme has successfully funded projects in countries in Southeast Asia and Bhutan.

“We have supported high school clubs to promote integrity education among youth with an objective that youth are future leaders of any society in Bhutan.

“In Indonesia, we assisted KPK, its anti-corruption agency, to implement the country’s national anti-corruption strategy by engaging communities and youth.”

Housed in the Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development (GCTISD) – a joint initiative by Singapore and UNDP in 2017 – the ACPIS programme has been providing support to at least seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region to support their country-level innovative projects, with generous funding from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Dr Timilsina works at the UNDP’s Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development (GCTISD) here in Singapore. | Photo Credit: Sophia Thomson

Citing Singapore’s good track record of fighting corruption in the public sector which ranked 4th in the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Dr Timilsina said: “Singapore is a global hub for finance, digital technology and start-ups…a leader in applying digital, data, and technology to improve the lives of its citizens and residents.

“It has consistently topped regional rankings and is one of the top ten globally in the Global Innovation Index. It promotes innovation and enterprise development and has attracted many leading global companies to set up Asia-Pacific headquarters.”

Dr Timilsina also gave his two cents’ worth on some best practices that countries could adopt to better combat corruption.

Firstly, he believes that anti-corruption efforts should be sustainable in order to be successful, and secondly, action-oriented measures are needed to be in place to measure the progress.

“To break the vicious cycle of corruption, there needs to be a sustained effort over a longer period of time. Otherwise, the progress could be reversed quickly as we have seen in many countries.

“We have also seen that there are many discrete initiatives implemented here and there without a comprehensive approach.

“Action-oriented efforts should (therefore) also ensure the effectiveness of the existing anti-corruption commitment made by the political leadership within a particular country.”

Dr Timilsina speaking at the 26th Anti-Corruption and Transparency Working Group Meeting in early 2018. | Photo Credit: Anga Timilsina

But the anti-corruption expert also acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue.

“I think what might work perfectly in one context may not work in another context and thus, what is most important are the lessons learned.

“Alongside the measures that have been proposed or taken by the governments, cooperation between both the private and public sectors is also key to sustaining these initiatives and closing the ‘implementation gap’.”

BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY

While Dr Timilsina and his ACPIS programme are fighting corruption for development, UNDP’s Global Centre in Singapore is also working to advance sustainable development, through leveraging technological solutions.

The Centre, which became fully operational in 2019, has made significant progress in the areas of sustainable agriculture in agritech, financial inclusion in fintech, and cities and digitalisation in the creation of smart cities.

Through harnessing innovation and technology, it assists in implementing effective initiatives that prioritise these areas.

One such initiative is “Cultiv@te”, a global innovation effort supported by the Government of Singapore.

Amidst an increasingly vulnerable agricultural sector due to climate change, Dr Timilsina shared that Cultiv@te’s goal is to meet society’s present food demands without compromising future generation’s ability to meet their own needs.

“Cultiv@te will curate multi-stakeholder coalitions to tackle key challenges faced by developing countries across the globe and explore opportunities in urban agriculture, climate resilience and livestock farming.”

A cheery man, the anti-corruption adviser, who has travelled to more than 100 countries, lives to expect the unexpected.

“Every day is different. I come to the office hoping that I will work on things, which I have planned the earlier days, but I end up working on totally different things because I constantly receive a lot of requests from our HQ, country offices and our government partners.

“(Nevertheless), my colleagues at the centre are very familiar with a song which I sing quite often.

“It is called ‘Today is a good day’.”

For more information on Cultiv@te, log on to www.cultivate.technology

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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