Will CORRUP-20 follow COVID-19?

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As we write this, the world is experiencing a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude since the Spanish flu of the early 20th century. Worldwide, there are millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths. It is already a given that the social and economic impacts will be felt for months, if not years.

In the midst of the media hustle and the reassuring government messages, there is the theme of “economic recovery” that many want to quickly reduce losses and restore lost normalcy. Governments have to contend with the difficult balance between cautions by health experts and the urgent signals from markets, businesses and skeptics who urge authorities to loosen containment measures and revive the global economy.

This is a perfect recipe for a resurgence of corruption because vigilance and control could be sacrificed to this eagerness and to the pressures exerted for historic investments in infrastructure and the “liberation” of international trade. Already, some are positioning themselves to take advantage of the government manna that is already falling and which will be amplified in a colossal effort to repair the economic damage. For example, in Italy, the mafia invests in companies in financial difficulty to be ready to seize the opportunities and contracts that are about to be launched. On the other hand, Canadians learned during the crisis that private long-term care hospitals were linked to organized crime active in money laundering.

Conscious of this environment and of the multiple unknown variables that will arise, we wanted to assess this risk in order to identify the mechanisms that could help to recognize threats, vulnerabilities and potential mitigation measures.

The threats

What are the main threats or, to paraphrase pandemic language, the vectors of corruption, likely to be activated? They are mainly of two kinds.

One is internal to the contract issuer and revolves around people with the ability to influence the contract award process. By process, we mean all the administrative and qualifying steps that mark out this allocation.

The other threat category is external to the contract issuer. There are intermediaries, vulnerable employees, commercial agents and business partners, consulting firms and specialized companies. Most are generally respectful of the rules, but they may face survival issues which contribute to putting the usual ethical principles on the back burner. Others are already subrogated by organized crime which has a great deal of expertise in the areas of corruption, extortion and are ready, willing and able to use all means to appropriate the lucrative public markets.

Vulnerabilities

The eagerness to return to normal presents the main vulnerability to corruption since it risks inducing a hasty approach in which the verification mechanisms would be short-circuited or reduced to their simplest form. This eagerness, fuelled by impatient public opinion and a combative political contest, would be a key element in an environment favourable to corruption.

The large volume of projects to be carried out thanks to historic investments by governments in infrastructure would push the administrative machine beyond its limits. The public service, already weakened by the pandemic, is inundated with extraordinary mandates set out by the two main orders of government. It could not absorb, without faltering, an additional volume of complex contract award processes that would be generated by economic recovery efforts.

Employees who have suffered significant financial losses. These employees find themselves in both threats and vulnerabilities because their precarious financial situation, following layoffs or that of a spouse for example, places them in a position that a briber would seek to exploit.

Weakened administrative processes (risk assessment, due diligence, assessment of applications, drafting of tenders, supervision and control) due to political pressure, lack of resources, time or the imposition of delivery conditions that force you to ignore or speed up certain steps in the process.

Potential mitigation mechanisms

First, recognize the risk of corruption. First step in a problem-solving process, the recognition of its existence is the most important phase because it forces awareness of threats and vulnerabilities, heightened vigilance and analysis of causes and the mitigation measures available. At this stage, a farsighted government should mandate an economic risk management committee made up of representatives from the Autorité des marchés financiers, the Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit (UPAC) and the Office of the Auditor General to assess different possible corruption risk scenarios in order to identify institutional vulnerabilities and their exploitability, potential threats, possible mitigation measures and their impact on economic recovery. This committee could quickly propose mitigation and monitoring measures to minimize the identified vulnerabilities.

Second, increase the level of vigilance on the public contract award processes for a period corresponding to the return to economic normality by ensuring constant consultation and collaboration between the monitoring and investigation entities already in place (Autorité des Marchés Financiers, UPAC, Auditor General).

Third, similar to crisis management during the pandemic, assert government leadership by adopting legislative and administrative measures inspired by international standards that focus the fight against corruption and by granting the necessary funds for their implementation. This measure targets the main government bodies through which public funds will be funnelled.

Fourth, make transparency the central pillar of anti-corruption efforts during this period of economic recovery. Public registers, support for whistle-blowing, media coverage and easier access to documents are among the main tools of this transparency since corruption has been shown to grow in the shadows and die in the light.

Conclusion

COVID-19 appeared in China in December 2019 and its progress has been the subject of numerous reports and expert reports until its arrival in Canada. This information allowed governments to prepare for a major health crisis. Some people consider that this preparation was deficient and that we could have done better. Given the signals that we are already receiving from European and African countries about an outbreak of corruption, we would be well advised to prepare our institutions and our economy for the upcoming arrival of CORRUP-20.

Authors: Pierre Brien and Serge Barbeau

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