A crisis tends to highlight the “cracks” in the system. Mathad Al-Ajmi, Chair of the B20 Saudi Arabia Integrity & Compliance Taskforce, which is focused on advancing a global anti-corruption agenda across all G20 member states, discusses the effect of corruption on the pandemic’s economic impact and the ongoing recovery phase.
As the global community fights the COVID-19 pandemic and turns its attention to reopening, corruption and abuse of power remain worrisome realities for many countries, within the G20 and beyond. Efforts to contain the spread of the virus, care for the sick and protect the health care workers on the front lines are being strained by a lack of transparency, consolidations of power and hijacked supply chains.
As a result, the global community is paying a cost it cannot afford. In both developed and developing economies, there has been a diminished ability to respond to the virus’s ease of transmission and resistance to treatment. The global economy loses US$3.6 trillion annually to corruption; we can only imagine what this number will be for 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Along those lines, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Working Group on Bribery has also come out with a direct warning that bribery and corruption “have the potential to undermine the global response to tackle the crisis” – hardly a surprising observation, and yet a worrisome truth for compliance practitioners worldwide.
Extraordinary times such as this tend to expose the cracks in our systems, highlighting the places where corruption may slip in. It is clear corruption not only exacerbates the public health consequences of COVID-19, but also its economic impact, both in the short and long term.
Unfortunately, widespread corruption as seen in today’s pandemic is not unique to COVID-19; it has been impeding global efforts for years, including during the 2013 Ebola outbreak, when procurement procedures were widely disregarded and Red Cross disbursements were simply lost. Likewise, COVID-19 will not be the last crisis of this magnitude. The corruption risks posed by these disruptions must be addressed, and companies need to be reminded that integrity and compliance obligations – both de facto and de jure – must remain enforced, even when external pressures exist.
More than ever, combating corruption requires a coordinated international effort. Regulatory compliance, transparency and high standards of ethics and integrity are all more relevant than ever as we adapt to a new normal post-COVID. We have seen supply chains disrupted and weakened on a global scale, with governments and markets under pressure to sustain their businesses and protect employees and consumers who are unable to access necessary goods and services. In these circumstances, corruption takes place in the form of preferential treatment, quid pro quos, bribery, kickbacks and insider training. As products, material and personnel rise in demand, the temptation for impropriety becomes ever greater.
We have identified several pillars and themes that have grown in significance as the world deals with COVID-19, from the need for transparency in public procurement to multinational coordination on anti-bribery laws. One of those pillars focuses on the use of technology to uphold integrity and compliance and further the global fight on corruption. According to a 2019 survey of 3,000 managers in compliance-related roles, 97 percent believe technology can significantly help with preventing bribery, corruption and other financial crimes through increased automation. As technology continues to rapidly evolve and profoundly transform the public and private sectors, it is vital we invest in and leverage new systems designed to facilitate the detection, investigation and reporting of corruption and ensure our prioritization of economic growth does not come at the cost of regulation.
As we shift to a recovery phase, it may be tempting to relax standards as a means to remaining agile. This tendency comes at a time when the capacity of government watchdog agencies is crippled, creating a double challenge. Yet it is now more important than ever to prioritize compliance in every process we undertake, and this is an area where automation can better serve us. The World Bank and other multilateral organizations have emphasized the need for increased accountability measures to be upheld even after we overcome COVID-19 – perhaps one of the biggest lessons learned and positives for the global compliance community.
It is the responsibility of global business to adhere to a culture of integrity and to safeguard operational efficiency, profitable growth and an inclusive workplace culture, all while navigating local, regional and international laws and regulations. Our collective response will ultimately determine the reality post-COVID-19; thus, it is our responsibility to lead by example – across business and government – to ensure our response prioritizes integrity.