How the new FCDO could advance the fight against corruption

Published on 13 August 2020

Robert Barrington

The UK’s Department for International Development is respected the world over for the lead it has taken over the past two decades on the issue of corruption.  Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex, examines how a merger with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, into the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), could advance this cause – rather than set it back.

Why prioritise corruption?

One of the consequences of wrapping the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to create the ‘FCDO’ is that important institutional initiatives and memory might be lost.  So it is worthwhile re-capping the multiple reasons why the FCDO should prioritise the fight against corruption in a post-Brexit world:

  • National security: corruption creates a downward spiral for fragile and rogue states; it allows hostile governments to thrive, some of which use corruption as a strategic weapon against the UK – the consequences include thriving organised crime and international terrorism.
  • Prosperity: corruption consistently harms economic development and distorts the operation of the free market.
  • Business environment: corruption damages the business environment – allowing the award of contracts to the companies that are the best at bribe-paying rather than the providers of the best goods and services at the most competitive price.
  • Reinforcing kleptocrats in government: corruption entrenches the power of those who are ruling in the interests of personal enrichment rather than in the public interest – especially in resource-rich countries, where there are rich pickings for those in power. Such kleptocrats seldom have interests aligned with those of the UK, especially when they have other options to explore.
  • Poverty and well-being: corruption harms the lives of the world’s poorest – for example, when healthcare budgets are diverted to the pockets of health officials – reinforcing poverty and undermining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is a national self-interest argument here for the UK (preventing migration etc), but it would be good to feel that not all of DFID’s altruistic values depart with the advent of the FCDO.
  • Global rule of law: corruption allows other countries to out-manoeuvre UK plc by breaking global rules – for example when Russia bribed its way to hosting the FIFA World Cup at Britain’s expense.

That all sounds rather negative – but there are also positive reasons why the FCDO should put corruption at the core of the new department.  Here are three of them:

  • Trade: a free market operates when there is a level playing field, with fair rules that are adhered to by all parties; increasing transparency and reducing corruption will help British companies to thrive in a post-Brexit world.
  • Global influence: as recently as 2016, Britain was demonstrating global leadership on tackling corruption – since then the UK has been marking time, but global leadership remains available to the UK; by contrast, Russia and China are poised to fill the vacuum of global leadership, and may do so if the UK cedes the territory.
  • UK expertise: the UK is a global centre of excellence in many areas of tackling corruption – including NGOs, academic researchers, business specialists, legal experts, journalists and university courses. That national resource has been a beneficial but unintended consequence of DFID’s leadership role in this area – and it could dissipate or be strengthened depending on the FCDO’s approach.

DFID and FCO track record on anti-corruption

It would be a mistake to claim that all was perfect under DFID’s auspices. DFID’s structure of decentralised power and prioritisation at times had an alarming tendency to mimic the errors of some international development NGOs: tempted to overlook corruption when faced with the challenge of relieving immediate suffering – or viewing corruption as an inevitable hurdle to be by-passed rather than a development problem in its own right.  Moreover, the recent ICAI review highlighted that good intent from DFID in areas such as tackling the proceeds of corruption (or ‘illicit financial flows’) was never enough to make up for a generally diffuse and uncoordinated approach across government.

Those who are concerned by the DFID takeover will be aware that the FCO’s own track record on corruption has not been strong.  It has failed to prevent the Overseas Territories becoming centres of global money laundering; does not score well in international comparisons on transparency in spending overseas aid; and has a reputation for putting expediency over principle in dealing with governments where the UK has a strategic interest.  That, of course, is the inherent tension of diplomacy, and precisely why it was considered sensible to split the Departments in the past.

Having a coherent anti-corruption policy

Setting aside the question of who did what in the past, and the wider question of having a separate department for international development, there is a logic to the UK running an anti-corruption policy that joins up its international development policy with its foreign policy.  An important dimension to this is the role of the well-regarded but under-resourced cross-government Joint Anti-Corruption Unit (JACU), the guardians of the national Anti-Corruption Strategy and experts in their own right.  A strong JACU working with a strong FCDO team would be a world-leading combination; an approach in which JACU nobly holds the fort in the face of FCDO disinterest or isolationism would be considerably less effective.

So what should the FCDO be doing?

  1. Prioritise corruption. It has long been a poor relation at the FCO; just as it once was at DFID before they saw the light.  The FCDO needs to send clear signals that corruption will remain a priority.
  2. Develop a long-term anti-corruption strategy. The UK’s national strategy expires in 2022. The FCDO should be pressing the government for a new ten to fifteen year strategy to be devised now and kick-in seamlessly from 2022 and this should be both aspirational and practical and place Britain at the forefront of global efforts, ideally in close alliance with the US.  The FCDO needs its own Departmental strategy covering how it will deliver on the national strategies, both current and future.  The longer the FCDO leaves this, the harder it will be for the UK to play a global role.
  3. Retain or replicate DFID’s anti-corruption capabilities. DFID’s specialist Governance, Open Societies & Anti-Corruption (GOSAC) unit  should be retained and expanded, merged with the FCO’s own corruption team, and given a senior reporting line.  Likewise, ‘governance’ specialists scattered elsewhere should be retained.  The existing capability can be built on to advise on the new strategy, continue current work on areas such as evidence-building, defence and extractives transparency, illicit financial flows and open contracting.  Consideration should be given to developing the capabilities into an internal centre of excellence to provide coordination and training for local posts.
  4. Strengthen the ‘governance’ approach of local posts. Combining the local presence of the FCO and DFID will be one of the FCDO’s big challenges.  In the anti-corruption sphere (sometimes more politely termed ‘governance’ to avoid offending local sensibilities), it represents an opportunity for a more joined-up and strengthened approach in-country – if there is a clear prioritisation and sense of direction.
  5. Stop rogue Overseas Territories undermining the UK’s credibility. I have lost count of the number of times in international meetings that the UK’s genuine efforts have been laughed off by references to the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, etc, and their global role in money laundering. For the FCDO to be taken seriously on anti-corruption issues, this problem needs to be addressed.
  6. Draw on the UK’s expertise. UK experts are rich in experience; the FCDO should resist the knee-jerk appointing of a big development consultant without corruption expertise (though all will claim to have it), and put together an advisory panel of UK anti-corruption experts to develop and guide its strategy.

Seasoned observers of the UK government’s approach to corruption are used to being alternately pleasantly surprised and gravely disappointed.  This one could go either way.

Robert Barrington is Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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