Do we still need the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group?

The G20’s ACWG has been around for a decade. In this post, Professor Robert Barrington argues that on balance it is more useful than not, but that is hardly a ringing endorsement.  If it is to survive a further decade, he argues, some tangible progress is necessary.  This is the sixth and final blog post in the CSC’s series ‘The role of the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group in influencing the global agenda.’ 

G20 ACWG Accountability Report 2021
Credits: G20 Italy – Anti-Corruption Working Group

You might be forgiven for wondering what is the point of the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG)?  At a glance, it might look like one of those international initiatives which some country sets up and then carries on and on because nobody cares enough to stop it.  Yet the blogs in our G20 series have been surprisingly favourable – much more than I had expected.  Let’s look at some of the positives: 

  • The ACWG gives ownership of the anti-corruption issue to countries which have traditionally not wanted, or been able, to take a lead on international corruption.  Some countries really take up the challenge – most notably Argentina in 2018.  Others see a chance to fill a gap or create a legacy – like Saudi Arabia in 2020, with its Global Operational Network of Anti-Corruption Law Enforcement Authorities (GlobE Network)
  • Hiding is also harder. The small numbers and rotating presidency make it harder for those countries that really don’t want progress to disguise this.  The ACWG includes countries which are notorious ‘blockers’ of progress in UNCAC.  When they do this at the G20, it’s fairly obvious – like China’s exclusion of civil society in 2016.  
  • Ministers can make progress.  The G20 is sufficiently important to governments that they still field senior people.  Ultimately, with political decision makers in the room, that means, in theory, more progress can be made.  The 2014 breakthrough declaration on beneficial ownership transparency in Australia illustrates this. 
  • Plugging the gaps.  Some important issues have come on the world agenda since UNCAC and other international conventions were signed – but such issues have no natural home.  The ACWG can provide this.  This year’s Italian presidency, for example, has put on the agenda the themes of measurement and sport. 

In the words of the veteran UK anti-corruption strategist and negotiator Phil Mason, the ACWG can promote ‘powerful, if virtually invisible, engines of quiet change‘.  While Maggie Murphy, who has an enviable reputation as one of the most effective international campaigners, sees the ACWG as a forum ‘to create inches of space for other actors to enter and expand.’ 

Add to this that a good part of the impact of corruption, and benefit of tackling it, is economic, and the world’s twenty largest economies should therefore have a common interest in preventing corruption; and that the annual ministerial meeting keeps the issue of corruption bubbling along in the international limelight.  So what’s not to like? 

The hot air is what the critics don’t like.  As Transparency International advocate Emilia Berazatageui points out, the ACWG is more notable for what it says than what it does.  Progress like the areas outlined above seem to happen more by accident than design, and happens despite some of the member governments not because of them.   There are some structural flaws to offset those positives: 

  • Unfulfilled commitments are inevitable. Each new presidency wants to make its mark and so there is an incentive is to announce something new, but not to deliver on someone else’s old announcement. 
  • The fig leaf is fully on display.  Some G20 members are amongst the most repressive and corrupt governments in the world, but can use the G20 and the ACWG to burnish their credentials. 
  • The niche is not evident.  Even the ACWG’s supporters might struggle to articulate how and why it fills gaps left by UNCAC, the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, and other international instruments. 

What of the future?  Perhaps what the ACWG most needs is a presidency with the courage to stop it.  But even better would be a presidency that gains consensus on a new process for making the ACWG more effective.  The key to this is working out how to make fewer commitments, on really key areas, that are actually delivered.  Liz David-Barrett shows how with a stronger technical foundation, the ACWG could help drive the global agenda. 

Success is not guaranteed by a single active and productive G20 presidency, but neither are mediocrity or failure at the ACWG inevitable.  Three strong presidencies in a row, with a strong common agenda and follow-through, could make it a powerhouse in cracking a major global corruption challenge like asset recovery.  The power lies with the presidents. 

Robert Barrington is Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption in the University of Sussex. He was formerly the head of Transparency International (TI) in the UK, the world’s leading anti-corruption NGO, and is currently Chair of TI’s International Council.

Posted in G20 Anti-Corruption Agenda, Governance, International Development
One comment on “Do we still need the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group?
  1. frankvogl1 says:

    Good insightful comments but as Prof. Barrington implies it is time to move on. The fact is that the G20 has had its day. It utterly failed to demonstrate essential leadership over COVID-19 and that failure underscored just how feckless it has become. Moreover, it is increasingly evident that at the highest global political levels the fight against corruption is central to the urgent challenge between rising authoritarianism and stumbling democracy. It is very hard to raise the key issues in this manner in the G20 with all the kleptocrats in the room. The G7 once again is the forum where, if there is going to be action, then it will be here. Rarely before have the G7 participants been so aware of the mischief being done by Moscow in Western elections, in striving to undermine Western politics and economics, and, at the same time, being engaged in Western capital markets to its benefit at our expense.
    The anti-corruption agenda in the G20 was excellent for several years and civil society played important roles in shaping that agenda and promoting it. Now, those gains need to be repackaged into a G7 agenda, with sustaining democracy at its core.
    Frank Vogl, Washington DC, June 6, 2021.

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