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Thank you, Bono

Ivana Rossi's picture

I grew up listening to U2, and I have followed Bono’s pioneering work raising awareness on pressing issues around poverty. My perspective was that Bono, like other very famous artists, generally leaned towards important topics that create immediate empathy, such as child malnourishment, education and health sector failures. Hence my grateful surprise when Bono yesterday singled out open data and transparency as key issues in the fight to end poverty.

One of the questions from the audience: How do you eliminate poverty in countries where corrupt officials remain in power? The answer was that it makes it harder. But if you change the question slightly, and focus on solutions: How can we help remove corrupt public officials from power to make eliminating poverty a possibility?

A very important tool is promoting financial disclosure by public officials.  Why does it help? Because if you track public official’s assets or conflicts of interest, you can better track deviations from their recorded assets or uncover when they are abusing their position for personal gain.  If you make these public then the world holds them accountable.

I am part of the Financial Market Integrity team that has been working on the topic of financial disclosure by public officials for quite a few years now. Making public officials more accountable by asking them to periodically declare their assets, liabilities and interests has led to a multi-faceted analytical and country assistance program. Our work touches on different aspects, from in-depth analysis to knowledge-sharing events to tailored technical assistance and trainings for client countries. The most recent development in this line of work is the launch of the Financial Disclosure Law Library.

The Financial Disclosure Law Library is a unique compilation of over 1,000 laws and regulations covering the different features of financial disclosure systems from 176 countries. It allows quick access to information, filtering by region, income level, and other relevant disclosure topics such as public availability of declarations, verification capacity, etc. I hope that the Financial Disclosure Law Library will become “the” source of information for  practitioners and policy-makers trying to implement and improve their financial disclosure systems.

Over 5 years ago, when our work on financial disclosure started, it was quite an understudied field. Very little was known or written on the topic. Most countries worked in silos, not knowing much about others’ experiences. There wasn’t much information on good practices and almost no venues to exchange knowledge. Even now, the first question we generally get from client countries is, how can we better do this? (Whether referring to how to manage the system, verify the thousands of asset declarations received, ensure that officials comply with the obligation to file declarations, etc.)  And it is immediately followed up by: do you know of any good examples?

And we do know. Because we not only compiled the laws from 176 countries, we have also read and analyzed them, identified trends and areas for improvement, and have worked with client countries, learning not only about the letter of the laws but the actual practice and  creative ways to move forward even in difficult contexts.

Laws on financial disclosure started spreading in the last 20 years. According to our sample of 176 countries, 78% of them have some kind of financial disclosure system in place, yet their implementation varies greatly, leaving, in most cases, room for improvement in  making these systems an effective tool to deter and detect conflicts of interest and corruption. By making information accessible with a click, we hope the law library  will help us inspire further debate and reforms in this area.

Bono said that “transparency is transformative” and we fully agree. So it is about time that we empower those words and encourage our client countries to think about the different tools that can improve their transparency. Financial Disclosure by public officials is one of them.

Corruption cuts across most challenges in the fight against poverty. At the center of failures in health, education and infrastructure, you will most likely find threads of corruption and  corrupt public officials. Making public officials more transparent and accountable makes a lot of sense. Of course, financial disclosure alone will not end corruption, but it can certainly represent an obstacle and a deterrent for officials who plan to engage or have engaged in corrupt practices.

Ever since my teenage years listening to U2’s “Joshua Tree” album I have known that there is not a better deterrent for wrong-doing than the increased likelihood of “being caught”. So thank you Bono for talking about this key issue in the fight against poverty, thank you for your words that are still making great music to my ears.
 

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