Three essential initiatives to defend democracy against corruption

The phrase ‘all politics is local’ means that a politician’s success is based on his ability to understand and influence the issues of voters, which has been true for generations. In today’s world, however, the increasingly globalized nature of corruption subverts local democratic politics and processes.

Autocrats use and abuse state resources to corrode institutions, harass democratic opposition and undermine national accountability systems. Leveraging the global financial system and its network of international facilitatorsautocrats are able to hide and expand these ill-gotten gains abroad, increasing their ability to fund domestic repression and even influence politics and elections in other countries.

The dangers of foreign bribery are increasingly recognized. The inclusion of the fight against corruption as one of the three fundamental pillars of the summit for democracy is part of a larger global effort to rally the democratic community of nations.

The dimensions and complexity of transnational crime defy quick fixes. Game-changing progress requires large-scale solutions such as:

  • Stand with Ukraine. Simply put, Russia’s illegal invasion of a free and sovereign Ukraine is existential for the Ukrainian people: their sovereignty, their freedoms and their way of life are at stake. Internationally, the stakes are just as important: a battle for peace and the rule of law launched against the forces of war and kleptocracy. The assault that began on February 24 is simply an assault by other means. For years, Putin has used disinformation and “strategic corruption” to inflict damage on Ukraine’s democracy and economy. If Ukraine maintain its sovereigntyautocrats might think twice before committing the kind of cross-border crackdowns that are becoming increasingly common, whether hijack an airline, kidnap a dissidentor (potentially) invade a neighboring free and democratic country. Thousands of Ukrainians have already made the ultimate sacrifice to defend the rule of law in their country. It is up to the rest of the democratic world to stand by them, resolutely and united. In the short term, that means giving Ukrainians the tools they need to end Russia’s illegal assault. And, in the longer term, that means closing the dark money paradisenotably in Europe and North America, which have long helped fund the Kremlin’s capacity for repression.
  • Win the race for information space. Despite the democracy intrinsic value and superior performance in achieving economic and social progress, the message about the dividends of democracy has been lost in translation. Kleptocrats dip into their deep pockets in their efforts to repress and manipulate public opinion. In 2021, Russia increased its propaganda budget to approximately $2.8 billion, an increase of $460 million over previous years. By comparison, the US Agency for Global Media – including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets – has a annual budget of approximately $840 million. Independent media are particularly crucial for anti-corruption activism and autocrats know this. Journalists who report on corruption, such as the CEO of Rappler and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, are harassed in smear campaigns; women journalists and reformers bear a disproportionate share of abuses. Reclaiming the information space so that it reflects integrity and freedom, rather than disinformation and repression, will require a a massive and concerted clean-up effort for independent media, media literacy and harmonized transparency and regulation of platforms, among other initiatives. The best analogy is a modern “Marshall Plan for the Information Space” that would draw on the resources and commitment of democratic actors around the world.
  • Disrupt the debt, democratically. The sovereign debt system desperately needs a democratic reset. The current state of opaque and unsustainable debt represents a major obstacle to global development and the rule of law. Loans are often contracted without the knowledge of the public. Parliaments are also sidelined by governments and lenders eager to fast-track deals that may be in their interest, but not necessarily in the public interest. Opacity fuels corruption and extends authoritarian influence. The government of Mozambique borrowed and likely misused, without disclosing, loans from private banks totaling $1.3 billion. The world’s largest single creditor, China has been able to expand its influence through loans that include confidentiality clauses and the collateralization of strategic reserves. The development impacts are no less striking. Unsustainable debt reduces funding for essential public services: in 2021, 25 of the world’s poorest countries spent more on debt service than on health, education and social protection combined. The key to preventing future cycles of debt distress is to strengthen transparency and accountability in the global sovereign debt regime. Lenders must be transparent: government, multilateral and private creditors must systematically disclose loans and their terms within 30 days of signing the contract. Similarly, borrowing governments should hold accountable debt procurement processes, including public scrutiny and parliamentary approval.

Time is running out for democratic leaders to act decisively against foreign bribery. In order to defend democracy, political and civic leaders will need to deploy anti-corruption strategies at least as concerted, innovative, adaptive and transnational as the corrupt networks themselves. So far, corrupt actors have been able to exploit the fissures within and between democratic countries. To move forward, to fight effectively against kleptocracy and autocracy, the democratic world must demonstrate unity of purpose and action.

Kristen Sample is Director, Democratic Governance, National Democratic Institute (NDI).

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