King James had it right early on. “All Treasurers, if they do good service to their masters, must be generally hated”, he remarked after he couldn’t protect his own treasurer Lionel Cranfield from being thrown into the Tower of London in chains. Cranfield had made too many powerful enemies by opposing an expensive war the treasury couldn’t afford. His many successors through the ages can probably relate without too much difficulty.
The discussions on budget transparency and open data have been gaining momentum over recent years. Not only is it important that governments publish budget data on web sites, but also that they disclose meaningful data and full picture of financial activities to the public. The question is, how much of the disclosed information and documents are reliable? What is the scope of disclosed information? Is there any reliable information about other important aspects of fiscal discipline and transparency?
A number of fiscal transparency instruments and guidelines have been developed by civil society groups and international organizations to evaluate the existence, regularity, and contents of certain key budget documents published in the public domain and whether the information comply with international standards. However, current instruments do not concentrate on the source and reliability of published information, as well as the integrity of underlying systems and databases from which governments extract data.
When it comes to confronting the issue of ill-gotten money (through corruption or tax evasion, for example) and its negative impact on development outcomes, we development professionals have often been guilty of tinkering at the edges of the problem, while avoiding confronting its root cause. Through recent work, we are attempting to rectify this dilemma.
By any account, the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials and bureaucrats in developing and transition economies each year is vast. It is estimated that the amount of stolen assets is as high as US$ 40 billion per year, but there are experts who put the figure even higher.
The recent upheavals in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere have put asset recovery in the spotlight. Indeed, as the citizens of these countries look towards the future, recovering wealth that former public officials are alleged to have acquired illegally remains a main concern.