G20 leaders take small steps on corruption

The UK played a positive role in securing commitments from other countries, but this now needs to be translated into concrete and binding laws.

The UK played a positive role in securing commitments from other countries, but this now needs to be translated into concrete and binding laws

As David Cameron made the long journey back from Brisbane, hopes for securing significant progress on anti-corruption were left unfulfilled.

The prime minister’s transparency initiatives, championed at last year’s Lough Erne G8, require support from the world’s emerging economies to give them real and lasting global impact, but G20 countries failed to step up.

Underneath the rhetoric and publicity, which sent a lot of positive signals, a number of critical gaps were left unaddressed. On a number of fronts, the G20 failed to prioritise public access to information on tax, company ownership and the extractive industry.

Public scrutiny is a vital weapon in the fight to curb tax evasion and corruption and allows journalists, NGOs and citizens to hold governments, businesses and others to account.

There are a number of different and very significant ways the G20 can tackle global corruption and the tools used by those that profit from it. This is how they fared at the summit:

1. The weapon of choice for the corrupt – anonymous companies. Leaders agreed to a set of high level principles which is significant progress, given reports that some governments were against this until the last moment.

But one of the main and most important points is missing from these principles – that the public should see information on who owns and controls companies. Developing countries that don’t have treaties with the G20 would also be denied this information.

2. The G20 went backwards on transparency for the extractive industries. Despite this being a priority for the Russian presidency last year, this disappeared from the official communiqué, featuring only as vague commitments to research on anti-corruption in the small print.

With transparency laws being finalised in the EU and Canada, this is a missed opportunity to give some real credibility to an emerging global standard.

3. Arguably the most infamous of all – tax evasion. While the G20 agreed to giving their own countries information on offshore tax evaders (Automatic Exchange of Information), developing countries that don’t have the systems in place to do the same and provide information to large countries like the US or Germany, would not be able to access information from the start.

4. One area that has seen great progress is open data and budget transparency which gives citizens better visibility of the flow of public money across borders, creating the space for public debate and the chance to hold governments to account on what their money is spent on. The G20 have promised to develop principles on open data.

So overall, an amber light for G20 leaders when it comes to addressing the international corruption that results in more than a trillion dollars leaving developing countries every year.

ONE is asking countries leading on these issues to keep up their efforts and to be ambitious in the fight against tax evasion and corruption, particularly in Europe where the opportunity for securing new standards on company transparency are being agreed as we speak.

The prime minister needs to champion transparency for companies and trusts in Europe. While the UK played a positive role at the G8 in securing commitments from other countries, now is the time to translate this into concrete and binding laws right across the continent. After all, the rubber hits the road, not in the aspirational language of G8 or G20 communiques, but in the nuts and bolts of law making.

David McNair is the director of transparency and accountability at the ONE campaign. Follow him on Twitter

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