More than $2.6 trillion is lost to corruption annually around the world, undermining efforts to end poverty and achieve the United Nations’ Global Goals, according to the UN.
In a UN security council session on Monday Dec. 10, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the many ways in which corruption harms societies and urged the gathered leaders to root out bad actors and enact reforms to improve government transparency and integrity.
“[Corruption] robs societies of schools, hospitals, and other vital services, drives away foreign investment, and strips nations of their natural resources,” he said.
“The poor and vulnerable suffer disproportionately,” he added. “And impunity compounds the problem.”
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Corruption rots critical institutions, prevents normal government functioning, enables other forms of crime, and can lead to conflicts, according to the UN.
For example, if officials overseeing education in a country accept bribes, engage in kickback schemes during school construction projects, or divert school funds to private coffers, students suffer.
In Cambodia, corruption has so thoroughly infiltrated the education system that teachers can be bribed to give out better grades, according to Cambodia Daily. In Mexico, poor families often have to use a third of their income on bribes.
Globally, 1 out of every 5 children is out of school, including 61 million primary school-age kids, largely because of chronic underfunding that can partly be linked to corruption.
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The same dynamic is often at play in health care, water management, food delivery, and more, where essential funds are often stolen in countries with weak checks and balances.
As corruption proliferates, it begins to stunt economies and exacerbate inequality by funneling money away from programs that would benefit people living in poverty toward the wealthy.
And when corruption becomes pervasive, it creates incentives to prevent crackdowns on illegal behavior because so many people in power have vested interests in the status quo, Guterres noted.
As a result, corruption can quickly become a vicious cycle, undermining citizens’ trust in government and preventing progress on the Global Goals from being made. When citizens see that bribes and graft determine political outcomes, they often stop participating in democracy, Guterres said.
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The farthest-reaching corruption scandal in Latin American history was exposed in Brazil in 2014, and led to widespread discreditation of the country’s political class.
Similar schemes around the world deepen problems like poverty. Some of the most corrupt countries in the world, including Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela, have high levels of extreme poverty.
Nigeria has the highest level of extreme poverty in the world and its oil industry features constant graft and bribery. And in Venezuela, rampant corruption has helped create one of the largest refugee crises in the word.
Guterres said that violence and instability can often be traced to corruption, and stressed that preventing future conflicts starts with improving government integrity.
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To address the problem, Guterres said, governments have “to build up the capacity of national anti-corruption commissions and prosecutorial efforts,” and allow watchdogs like the press to have protections from retaliation. Similarly, electoral processes have to be protected from nefarious influence so that citizens can elect politicians with integrity that can gradually clean up institutions.
At the same time, officials have to be shielded from outside bribes and graft schemes through fair pay and strong checks and balances.
“I call on leaders everywhere to listen, to nurture a culture of integrity and to empower citizens to do their part at the grass roots,” Guterres said.