When is fighting corruption worth it?


Some $1 trillion was lost to corruption last year. This is money that was not available for expanding health care, broadening access to education, improving nutrition, or cleaning up the environment. According to Transparency International, 68% of the world’s countries have a serious corruption problem, and no country is completely immune.

Corruption is one facet of poor governance; indeed, it correlates with ineffective public administration, weak accountability, low transparency, and inconsistent implementation of the rule of law. So it is little wonder that the United Nations’ brand-new Sustainable Development Goals, coming into force this year, aim to fight it. Nonetheless, the SDGs represent a departure from the previous development framework, the Millennium Development Goals, which contained no explicit targets relating to corruption.

Success would have myriad benefits: better public service, higher economic growth, greater faith in democracy. In an ongoing global poll that has so far attracted 9.7 million responses, “an honest and responsive government” is the fourth most popular policy priority, with only education, health care, and better jobs rated higher.

The problem is that the SDGs have so many targets – 169 in total – that they promise virtually everything to everyone. Without enough time or resources to focus on everything, countries will prioritize. My think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has worked with more than 60 teams of experts to analyze the promised targets to identify what each would cost and achieve, so that prioritization can be better informed.

Nobel laureate economists examined this new research and identified 19 super-targets that would do the most good for the world for each dollar spent. These include achieving universal access to contraception, stepping up the fight against tuberculosis, and expanding preschool access in Sub-Saharan Africa. The economists recommended that the world’s donors and governments focus first on these investments.

The UN’s 12 corruption and governance-related targets weren’t among these phenomenal investments. One reason is that several of the UN’s “targets” in these areas are so broad as to be meaningless. Indeed, it is all very well to say that we want to “develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels,” and to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms,” but where do we start?


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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