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Insight

The new moral urgency of the UN’s corruption rhetoric

Written by Jake Plenderleith on Wednesday December 9, 2020


Absorbing bribery and corruption statistics provided by the UN is, even during gentler times, a sobering experience. This year’s figures were as bold and quietly unsettling as ever, in a neat symmetry of the year itself. But the accompanying comments by UN Secretary-General did offer something new. 

Corruption is criminal, immoral and the ultimate betrayal of public trust. It is even more damaging in times of crisis – as the world is experiencing now with the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the virus is creating new opportunities to exploit weak oversight and inadequate transparency, diverting funds away from people in their hour of greatest need.[1]

This unusually emotive language (immoral, betrayal, crisis) is revealing. The resonance and urgency in Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ statement indicates how an already massive problem is going to become much bigger in the wake of a global pandemic, massive job losses and an economic downturn. 

We can’t afford to shirk from reality, so let’s confront it. COVID-19 has taken a sledgehammer to most of the world’s economies. The recovery is going to be hard, slow and painful. Bribery and corruption, already huge concerns, are going to pose an even greater threat, and following an economic slide, the temptation to indulge in them is going to rise everywhere. Those engaged in anti-corruption must be poised to challenge this rise, efforts must be redoubled and we should be receptive to new ways of fighting it.

Bodies like the UN and EU, as well as states, will, on days like today, reiterate their stance against corruption. The UN especially, as an international body with a lot of clout, has a powerful role to play in helping prevent corruption. But now that we find ourselves in a crisis, it is not imprudent to look at the UN’s anti-corruption day and the clarity and impact of its campaign.   

 

UN Anti-Corruption Day

In a sense, quantifying the success of a such an initiative is impossible. Its focus is on intangible outcomes that can only be evaluated indirectly (how can you measure awareness?). The UN describes its international days as ‘powerful advocacy’ tools, and indeed the UN does convey the serious harm corruption can do on their website and through their various communication channels.

But there is little detail to be found beneath the well-intentioned homilies. Fighting corruption is part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals. This is commendable, but far too broad and too remote an objective to generate action – it fails to reflect the immediacy of the problem. Goals to be achieved a decade hence, no matter the spirit behind them, lack urgency.

This is not to knock the UN’s ambition, nor its objective of raising awareness around corruption. It is more a plea for something more direct, more impactful; a new way of talking about the topic that reflects reality and a vocabulary that recognises that something like bribery is part of everyday existence for millions of people. It is no good simply telling such people that corruption is wrong, when it is so deeply embedded in their lives (and when they are near-powerless to change it). Such a recognition from the UN, demonstrating that it sees how things really are and suggesting clear steps to remedy it, might actually lead to progress.

It is a relief, in a way, to read the impassioned denunciation of corruption by Antonio Guterres, because it suggests he and his colleagues at the UN are aware of that which threatens us. Nor is he alone. Transparency International have asked whether COVID-19 is the ‘perfect incubator’ for healthcare corruption.[2] The pared, direct language used by both TI and the UN is desperately needed. For further success, however, we need to look beyond global institutions or NGOs and find creative ways of exposing bribery and corruption.

 

New approaches to corruption

Take the documentary Collective (2019) by Alexander Nanau, recently released on streaming platforms. This upsetting but profoundly important – almost unbelievable – film follows the journalist Catalin Tolontan as he investigates the aftermath of a deadly fire at the Bucharest nightclub Collectiv in 2015. Many of the 64 victims died in Romanian hospitals after the disaster, with bribery and corruption having led to inadequate healthcare provisions. The film has completely blown people away and is a major critical success.[3] One reviewer at Variety noted the ‘universal resonance’ of the ‘corrosive corruption’ the film reveals.[4] Such a film can do more in 109 minutes to reveal the visceral damage corruption can inflict than the UN or any other body can do in a year.

Few possess a journalist’s ability to diligently follow a story, nor have the money to put together a documentary film. But these are the kind of investigative projects the UN, EU and other bodies should be loudly and proudly backing – documentaries, exposés, one-off shorts. A little financial largesse for such initiatives would make a difference too enormous to measure and reach the widest possible audience via streaming sites, for instance, or on social media. Who knows what such a move could do to the general public’s attitude towards bribery and corruption? There is no panacea for these twin maladies, but something as emotionally charged and universally loved as film is a tool that has been far too sparsely used to bring them to light.

 

Looking forward

More needs to be done, so the runs the usual line, to stop bribery and corruption. A statement often espoused and one with which few could disagree. But we no longer have time to sit back and nod in knowing agreement with such a platitude. Bribery and corruption are massive threats to stability and the stakes are high. Livelihoods shattered by COVID-19 cannot be left exposed to corruption, nor further degraded and trampled on by bribery. Antonio Guterres’ framing of corruption in stark moral terms is welcome, but only a start. Allied to visual media, we could see a very potent alchemy.

 

 

[1] United Nations, ‘International Anti-Corruption Day’: https://www.un.org/en/observances/anti-corruption-day – accessed December 2020

[2] Transparency International, ‘Corruption and COVID-19’, 16 April 2020: https://www.transparency.org.uk/corruption-coronavirus-covid-19 – accessed December 2020

[3] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Collective review – shocking exposé of needless deaths in Romania’, The Guardian, 19 November 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/nov/19/collective-review-alexander-nanau-catalin-tolontan and Justin Chang, ‘Review: The brilliant, infuriating Romanian healthcare documentary ‘Collective’ is a COVID-era must-see’, Los Angeles Times, 18 November 2020: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-11-18/collective-review-documentary – both accessed December 2020

[4] Jay Weissberg, ‘Collective Review: Exposé of Romanian Corruption Has Universal Resonance’, Variety, 6 September 2019

 

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