Corruption: The New Urban Agenda’s elephant in the room

Any ambition for urban development can succeed only when corruption is effectively tackled. Similarly, the global fight against corruption critically depends on cities.

Igor Sorokin/Shutterstock

First, a scene from the closing ceremony of the World Urban Forum 2014: Former Medellín mayor and now state governor Sergio Fajardo identified one issue on the urban agenda as the elephant in the room, something that “is harder to fight than guerrillas”: corruption.

Now, fast-forward to the 2015 International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Kuala Lumpur, the world’s largest gathering of governance practitioners and experts: Governor Fajardo’s message is picked up and driven home with a vengeance.

One of the IACC sessions, which took place in September, involved the mayors of Monrovia, Liberia, and Abra de Ilog, in the Philippines. It provided a deeply practical, open and inspiring series of experiences and reflections on how corruption holds back cities — and how city leaders take courageous, successful and often eminently creative action against it.

Clara Doe Mvogo, the mayor of Monrovia, shared how her city’s government faced daunting governance and corruption challenges when she came into office. Fee payments happened in cash with low collection rates and insufficient audits, and employee absentee rates were high — all issues further complicated by the onset of the devastating Ebola crisis.

In response, Mayor Mvogo took action to strengthen audit mechanisms and move to bank-facilitated and electronic fee payments. Doing so boosted revenues in Monrovia and allowed the city to purchase buses that facilitated commutes for public employees, thus reducing absenteeism.

[See: Monrovia Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo on Ebola’s lessons]

Mayor Eric A. Constantino of Abra de Ilog emphasized how an anti-corruption drive at the national level could be fruitfully leveraged at the city level. In his city’s experience, doing so led to a significant reduction in red tape, enhanced standards for local services, and a much more inclusive process of local decision-making, with bottom-up budgeting and institutionalized civil-society assemblies. All this helped to create fewer opportunities for corruption, stronger citizen oversight and stronger incentives for service integrity.

Both mayors as well as experts from UN-Habitat and Transparency International also shared a set of lessons learned, which provide important guidance for the future fight against urban corruption.

Major laboratories

First, effective, sustainable accountability and integrity initiatives require involving local communities along the entire governance chain, from policymaking and budgeting to monitoring and in some cases even the co-provision of services. This is a necessary condition so that urban plans and policies are not captured by small elites, that budgets are responsive to community needs, and that implementation of public works and services does not line the pockets of corrupt officials and service providers.

[See: A provocative idea? In Italy, Habitat III stakeholders the ‘city as a service’]

Second, a cultural shift around corruption is required to make a difference, demanding change on all levels: training, education, awareness, incentives, monitoring. Endemic corruption typically feeds on a vicious, self-reinforcing circle. Citizen are resigned to thinking that nothing can be done about it and fail to report corruption, thus creating a culture of impunity that emboldens the corrupt and further entrenches mistrust and disengagement in government.

“Anti-corruption analysts and advocates do not pay sufficient attention to cities, and urban practitioners do not pay enough attention to corruption.”

Raising public awareness about the dismal consequences of corruption and offering easier ways to report it can make a big difference. However, this process needs to be aligned with a commitment by the political leadership to root out corruption, instil a sense of professional ethics, and recruit and promote civil servants on the basis of merit and integrity.

Third, new tools, technologies and partnerships to assist in devising integrity policies and collective action are coming online in greater numbers. “Open cities” initiatives, for example, use ICTs on many levels to enhance the transparency of local bureaucracies, from community mapping to budget tracking to asset/income disclosure of local officials.

[See: Digital vs. analogue at Habitat III meeting on civic engagement]

The main message from the session was twofold. First, any ambition for urban development — from creating inclusive, resilient, green, healthy, just, smart or liveable cities — can succeed only when corruption is tackled effectively. And, vice-versa, cities are the major laboratories for governance innovation and reform. Thus, the global fight against corruption critically depends on cities.

This may sound sweeping. But it is borne out empirically, as confirmed by a related background paper that summarizes the best evidence available on urban corruption risks and impacts. The paper also points to a “double blind-spot: anti-corruption analysts and advocates do not pay sufficient attention to cities, and urban practitioners do not pay enough attention to corruption.”

Stepping up the conversation between these two communities has great potential to develop new ideas for urban governance, energize the anti-corruption movement and remove a tremendous obstacle to any kind of ambition for cities that their communities and urban practitioners are setting for themselves.

Cities of integrity

So where to go from here for Habitat III — this year’s 20-year urbanization conference — and the transformational New Urban Agenda that it seeks to produce? In this, two points stand out.

First, it is imperative that the potentially devastating role of corruption and the urgency to tackle this challenge are recognized as a priority ambition for human settlements and their development over the coming decades.

The Habitat IIIissue paper” released last summer and the draft policy “framework” paper released in January on urban governance provide a starting point by articulating that “local corruption constitutes one of the big scourges of the urbanising world” and that “accountability and transparency are more than ever at the core of urban governance”. This spirit and a very practical commitment to make it happen need to be firmly embraced and further expanded by the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Key drafts of Habitat III policy papers open for public comment]

Second, policymakers and city governments cannot go it alone. Working toward cities of integrity requires concerted efforts by a variety of stakeholders — NGOs, business, citizens and the urban practitioners and urbanists that think about cities and their development for a living. Such a concerted effort must mobilize urban data and technologies, business resources, creative urbanism and community power, political will and local collective action.

As the IACC in Malaysia showed, the governance community stands ready to engage on urban issues. It is increasingly focusing its energy and expertise on subnational corruption challenges and on developing tools, tactics and partnerships that speak to and engage with cities and local governance leaders. Transparency International, as the leading global NGO network dedicated to fighting corruption, is continuously developing new diagnostic tools, advocacy efforts and practical integrity projects that speak to the challenge of urban corruption.

[See: How will we keep track of city actions under the New Urban Agenda?]

For example, Transparency International recently devised and piloted a Local Integrity System Analysis approach that helps cities identify their most pressing institutional shortcomings and areas for governance reform. Many of our more than 100 locally rooted country groups are running collective-action initiatives for monitoring key metropolitan infrastructure projects and services, and some assess and rank cities in their countries on their transparency and accountability performance.

Transparency International also creatively explores the role of architecture and design to empower and help stave off corruption. And we help to equip the next generation of urban planners with anti-corruption tools and knowledge by creating related curricula in collaboration with urban-planning schools in sub-Saharan Africa. Without a doubt, urban integrity will again feature prominently at the next IACC, to be held in Panama in December.

So the sails are set in 2016 for a global push to make cities and the New Urban Agenda a central plank for tackling corruption in urban development. Quito and Panama City, Habitat III and IACC — here we come.

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