9 December is International Anti-Corruption Day, a celebration of the signing of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which celebrates its 20th year of ratification this year. The Convention was a landmark global breakthrough, which sought to address the concern of both governments and communities across the world that corruption strips critical resources from government budgets and undermines efforts to progress people-centered sustainable development.
As many Pacific people are well aware from their own experiences with governments, corruption often allows for the diversion of much-needed money away from public services and into private pockets. It can mean that unqualified people are recruited or promoted into jobs that they are not capable of performing properly and are never sanctioned when they behave improperly or corruptly. It can mean that contracts are awarded to unqualified firms, who then go on to deliver sub-standard goods and services.
What does this mean in reality? For too many Pacific people, it means that schools and health clinics aren’t properly maintained because funding doesn’t reach their villages to invest in infrastructure because it has already been diverted into corrupt officials’ or business people’s hands. It means that medicines are often not procured on time or in sufficient quantities, because contracts weren’t properly awarded and unqualified health officials didn’t know how to transport them safely. It means that potholes in roads are constantly appearing and being poorly repaired because the contract went to a firm that wasn’t qualified or used the wrong materials to lay the road.
As the Pacific continues to grapple with climate change and natural disasters, the impact of corruption is being even more tangibly felt. When disasters hit, corruption can mean that the response from government is slow or insufficient, as procurement and delivery processes may be poorly managed, and officials may be under-funded to respond to the surge in need. As Pacific governments also try to respond to the increasingly dire threat of climate change, there is a risk that corruption will lead to Pacific countries not being able to access or effectively disburse their share of climate funding because financial systems are not sufficiently robust to ensure they are spent properly. This would be a travesty – the region is on the front line of the climate crisis, and it is imperative that climate funding be absorbed and used to best effect.
As we commemorate International Anti-Corruption Day, the United Nations Development Programme is proud to reflect on the work done to tackle corruption in partnership with Pacific governments, civil society and communities since the UNCAC was endorsed. In the immediate aftermath of the UNCAC’s endorsement, UNDP worked with Pacific governments and parliaments to encourage the ratification of UNCAC. Concurrently, UNDP continued to harness its suite of governance programming to support governments, civil society and the private sector to implement their convention commitments.
UNDP has long advocated for freedom of information legislation as a key mechanism for enabling the public to access information they can use to hold the government to account. In 2008, UNDP worked with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to organize the first Regional Freedom of Information (FOI) Conference in Solomon Islands. After years of support, Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau, Tonga and Vanuatu all now have FOI laws in place, while the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands have draft FOI Bills.
UNDP also worked with a range of integrity institutions – in particular, Ombudsman, Leadership Code Commissions, Auditors-General and law enforcement bodies – to support their accountability efforts. This included supporting law reform, capacity building and South-South exchanges. In 2012, for example, UNDP engaged with the Melanesian Spearhead Group to facilitate knowledge-sharing across Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu on UNCAC implementation, the usefulness of FOI and the value of independent commissions against corruption. From 2010-12, UNDP also supported the PNG Government to develop the region’s first ever National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS). PNG, Kiribati and Solomon Islands now all have NACS, while Cook Islands, FSM, Tuvalu and Vanuatu have started developing them.
Over the last decade, UNDP has ramped up its work to support anti-corruption efforts by harnessing a suite of governance programming to promote accountability and tackle transparency in multiple sectors and across multiple levels. One of the most troubling areas where corruption continues to plague Pacific Governments across the Pacific is in public financial management (PFM). Weak systems allow for the leakage of funding, while poor procurement processes continue to allow contracts with shady companies to undermine public services. UNDP is supporting governments across the region to overcome challenges in the oversight and accountability of public finance, providing a platform for experts, decision-makers, and thinkers to design tailored solutions. UNDP also provides opportunities for civil society and the media to better understand and engage with public finance cycles and for governments to consult and engage with citizens on budgets.
This work has complemented the efforts of UNDP’s dedicated anti-corruption team to deepen the region’s hunger to tackle corruption at its source, by not only criminalizing corruption where it occurs but preventing it from occurring at all.
Complementing this work with governments, UNDP has also been working with civil society and communities to strengthen their own commitments to zero-tolerance for all forms of corruption. UNDP has worked with the University of the South Pacific’s (USP) School of Information Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Physics to develop course modules on corruption and Right to Information (RTI), which can support a cohort of young students to become highly skilled champions of accountability and transparency, who can take their knowledge into government and private sector jobs in the future to ensure better outcomes. UNDP has also worked with the USP Students Association to fund their efforts to engage with students across the Pacific to build their awareness and understanding of the principles of good governance and addressing corruption, toward a Youth Vision of Good Governance across the Pacific.
As UNDP continues to drive these efforts forward, the coming years will also seek to harness new ideas and new technologies for the benefit of Pacific people. Experience from across the world has shown that new technologies, including recent artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs, could offer a huge opportunity for small countries like those in the Pacific to leapfrog ahead in the fight against corruption. UNDP has already been working with Pacific Governments to facilitate Digital Readiness Assessments, which will lay the groundwork for countries to develop their own National Digitalization Strategies, which can include specific activities designed to harness the power of ICTs and the ambition of the application of innovative technology like AI and blockchain to address corruption.
As we look towards the future and ponder the future of UNCAC and the region’s anti-corruption efforts, there are clear signs of progress but still much work needs to be done. The people of the Pacific deserve to have their resources harnessed and fully utilized for their benefit through well-funded, well-delivered public services. As the climate crisis looms, it is ever more important to ensure every cent is being spent on protecting the Pacific. We all have a role to play. UNDP stands ready to work with Pacific partners to continue the fight to end corruption.
UNDP thanks all our donors supporting anti-corruption efforts: European Union, New Zealand Government, Australian Government, the Government of the United Kingdom.