We don’t enjoy being the skunks at the garden party, but we can’t help but feel that today’s announcement of a new self-monitoring mechanism for signatories to the UN Convention Against Corruption is little more than an expansion of bureaucratic turf with virtually zero potential for changing lives on the ground.
To quote the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (whose portfolio includes implementation of the UNCAC):
After a week of intense negotiations, States have agreed to a mechanism to monitor implementation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption.
Under the new mechanism, all States will be monitored every five years to see how they are living up to their obligations. Findings, based on self-assessments and peer reviews by experts, will be compiled in country review reports. The executive summary of these reports will be made public.
The country reports will identify gaps in national anti-corruption laws and practices. Strengths and weaknesses will also be revealed by a self-assessment checklist based on new software developed by UNODC. This analysis will enable more effective delivery of technical assistance.
Highlights and Lowlights
Let’s review the key points:
Self-assessments: [Groan]. We understand the UN is a lowest common denominator organization and that the existing multilateral assessment models are also based on self- and peer-assessments (see the Council of Europe’s GRECO process, Africa’s APRM mechanism, and the Organization of American States’ peer review process). But count us underwhelmed by the potential for honest self-assessments on this issue. Self-assessments are almost always a blend of real facts and political polish (or whitewash, if you want to be more critical). Third-party, external assessments are, in our opinion, the most accurate and unbiased ways to measure progress and can still involve government (country ownership – we’re for it).
When you consider that UNCAC implementation could conceivably become a precondition for development aid… get ready for some “assessments” that read like tourism brochures.
(See our A Users’ Guide to Measuring Corruption for a full discussion.)
Five years: Really? Every five years is the best we can do? How many administrations will be in and out of office in how many UNCAC countries without an assessment having ever been done?
Software: We’re all for using technology to promote anti-corruption reforms, but from what we gather, UNODC’s new software seems unlikely to address the trust issues with the underlying information. We’ve requested a copy to take it for a test drive and will withhold final judgment until then, but we wonder how much money was spent to develop this software and whether it could have been done with Google Forms for free.
(Lack of) Transparency: It is simply shameful that the full assessments will not be made public. (UNODC: “The executive summary of these reports will be made public.”) This is an anti-corruption treaty in which transparency plays a foundational role in curbing corruption! I simply don’t buy the argument that keeping the full assessments out of the public eye is worth getting a deal done to have any assessments at all.
The bottom line
Which brings me to a final point: the kind of watered down, half-baked monitoring mechanism agreed today begs the question “Is this even worth it at all?”
My answer to that would be no; I would rather have no assessment process than the one agreed in Doha. Why? Like the UNCAC itself, what was agreed at Doha has the potential to turn into a simple box-checking exercise for governments to claim “progress” in the fight against corruption (“Look, we just published an assessment!”) when in fact, as experienced by citizens, there is no progress.
Will these assessments lead to meaningful policy changes in most countries? I am highly doubtful. Will they improve the lives of the average citizens in most countries? I’m even more doubtful.
Will they create a nice new “portfolio” of work for staff at UNODC headquarters in Vienna? You bet. And that’s where we’ll ultimately find the greatest “impact” of these assessments to be, I suspect — in expanded international bureaucratic turf.
(I should note that there is debate among our staff over whether a flawed assessment is better than none at all in this context. We often support incremental solutions.)
The way forward
A great many civil society groups like Transparency International and Global Witness were lobbying hard for an open, effective assessment process. This is not the outcome they wanted. For the most part, they were themselves shut out of the most crucial negotiations. We’re grateful for the efforts they made, regardless of the result.
Global Integrity is primarily an information provider, not an advocacy organization. While we did participate in some of the high-level presentations in the lead-up to Doha, we let the advocacy groups take the front lines on this issue. But Member States’ failure to create a credible official review mechanism highlights the need for both advocacy and independent information when it comes to UNCAC implementation going forward.
Global Integrity will continue to provide locally researched, timely, peer-reviewed and entirely transparent scorecards of anti-corruption performance, alongside and complimentary to efforts like Transparency International’s National Integrity Systems and the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Index. Our work is not a perfect or complete solution, but we do think it’s helpful and has an impact. Reliable anti-corruption evaluation has historically come from empowered, independent civil society representing citizens, and the UNCAC monitoring agreement is not going to change that.
— Nathaniel Heller & Global Integrity