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David Cameron has grand anti-corruption aims – can he do justice to the rhetoric?

If the Prime Minister is going to effect change, then tomorrow's anti-corruption summit is his final chance. 

By Dan Hough

Over 40 countries are sending representatives to London this week to talk anti-corruption. Presidents of countries as diverse as Nigeria, Norway, Afghanistan and Colombia have signalled that they will attend, as has John Kerry, the US Secretary of State. Even high-profile representatives from FIFA and UEFA are planning to come along. For David Cameron, the event has the potential not only to move domestic debates on from the UK Prime Minister’s own difficult dealings financial dealings, but also to begin shaping his own legacy. 

Cameron, to his credit, did not simply discover the issue of corruption with the publication of the Panama Papers. He began to talk of bringing more openness and transparency to government as far back as the summer of 2010, before chairing the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2012 and hosting an OGP summit in 2013, and then publishing the UK’s first anti-corruption plan in December 2014. Cameron raised the stakes further in a high profile speech in Singapore in 2015, calling corruption “the greatest enemy of progress in our time” and a “cancer [that’s] at the heart of so many of the world’s problems”. All true and all impressive.  But if Cameron is going to effect change, then this week, as the eyes of the anti-corruption world look to London, is arguably the final chance for him to really do so.

So what should we expect from this week’s jamboree? Firstly, issues of financial secrecy will be at the forefront of many minds. NGOs and campaigners are subsequently calling for governments to agree to reveal who the beneficiaries of all companies are (so-called ‘beneficial ownership’) and to make all of this information publicly available (as will be the case in the UK from the beginning of June regardless of what is decided at the summit). Something concrete on limiting secrecy in offshore finance is therefore a given, but it is also likely that full access to beneficial ownership information will somehow be limited. As Transparency International has noted, only two of the Group of 20 currently allow the real ownership of a company to be tracked and only four are committed to ending secret company ownership. Extending the British model overseas could be politically very difficult. 

Secondly, the summit will make a big play to begin cracking down on the so-called ‘facilitators of corruption’. Illicit gains can often be filtered back in to the system by buying property or cars, by sending children to expensive schools or by finding ways of investing in otherwise legitimate projects. The UK government is keen to force the lawyers and the accountants, the bankers and the estate agents to conduct due diligence on where money comes from. Furthermore, there is hope in some quarters that those facilitators caught turning a blind eye will be named and shamed, and barred from winning public sector contracts. A move in this direction will tacitly acknowledge that it’s in places like the Square Mile where too little anti-corruption work has been done in the past, something non-western participants have legitimately been keen to stress.

Finally, there is the broader challenge of what Dan Kaufmann of the Brookings Institute calls legal corruption. Those in power are adept at finding ways to legally influence laws, policies and rules for their own benefit. The “privatisation of public policy and law-making” can only really be prevented when transparency is adopted as a given; we need to know when potential conflicts of interest arise, we need to know how public contracts are awarded and we need to know why decisions are made. In many places around the world this will require a radical culture shift the type of which many governments will in reality want to have very little to do with.

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The final communiqué subsequently has the potential to be quite radical. But the biggest problem with plans – any plans – is not formulating them, it’s putting them in to practice. As the heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once said “[every one of] my opponents has a plan … until they get punched on the nose”. Iron Mike has a point. Even assuming the very best of intentions (and that is a big assumption), plans can still be very big let-downs as (often unforeseen) things get in the way. The metaphorical punch on the nose can come at any time and in ways you’re not necessarily expecting. That means that it can often, as the FT noted on 9 May, make sense to stress measures that are heavy on practicality and much lighter on crowd-pleasing.

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Cameron’s call for a global anti-corruption agency would appear to fall squarely in to this category – the idea sounds good, but it is unclear how such an agency could ever really work in practice. As things stand the leaders of many of the offshore havens that are going to be the subject of so much discussion aren’t likely to be there. There will be lots of talk about them, but in all probability not much directly to them. Plus, Cameron does have form in terms of promising a lot but not really delivering on the detail. It isn’t clear, for example, how the UK is going to evaluate its own anti-corruption plan (18 months after publication) and there is a danger that this summit will declare it’s everyone’s duty to implement the summit’s agreement, but no one’s obligation. International summitry is a world full of communiqués that soon disappear down to the second or third pages of a google search. 

The anti-corruption summit subsequently has the potential to be genuinely game-changing. But, as with all these things, the devil will be in the detail.