Can wearing a mask help prevent corruption? No, but leading by example can

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Slovakia?s political leaders wearing protective face masks and gloves while performing official duties. Source:  JOE KLAMAR / AFP / GETTY Slovakia’s political leaders wearing protective face masks and gloves while performing official duties. Source: JOE KLAMAR / AFP / GETTY

A recent article in The Atlantic praises Slovakia’s political leaders for wearing protective face masks and gloves while performing official duties, and suggests a link between this very public display and the country’s success so far in controlling the coronavirus (COVID-19). An image of a Head of State and her senior officials with their faces covered is certainly visually arresting, perhaps even more so where she has swapped hospital-issue blue for color-coordinated purple. (Face coverings as a form of “power dressing” could make an interesting subject for another blog.) 

But might there also be a link between political leaders’ willingness to wear masks and a country’s performance in controlling corruption?   This health crisis, and the devastating impact it is having on lives and livelihoods, has made it starkly apparent that the costs of corruption are never just economic. 

A recent World Bank policy note describes the risks and impacts of corruption in the context of the pandemic and provides guidance on addressing and mitigating them, both in the initial response and in the medium term. The note refers to the harm caused by the theft, waste, and misuse of public resources. It describes how corruption can undermine not only the effectiveness of a government’s response to the health emergency but also to the ensuing crises in livelihoods and food security.  It also points to how the scale of the response creates highly lucrative opportunities for corruption: emergency purchases agreed at grossly inflated prices, contracts awarded to politically connected suppliers or shell companies, to cite just a couple of examples. And it reminds us that governments need to keep an eye on the bigger picture by confronting the practices that contribute to the illicit financial flows that act as a drain on development. This point brings us back to Slovakia. 

Slovakia has outperformed its European neighbors in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak  (with the lowest death rate per capita, and by being the first country to declare no new cases). It is also an outlier in another respect.  Slovakia was among the first countries to create a beneficial ownership transparency register in response to a public outcry over corruption and conflicts of interest in the award of public contracts. (EU Anti-Money Laundering Directives require all member states to publish beneficial ownership information by late 2020). 

Slovakia’s “Anti-Letterbox Companies Act,” which entered into force in February 2017, is based on the principle that only companies that voluntarily and reliably reveal their beneficial owners should “do business” with the state. Slovakia’s approach is innovative in that it does not rely on self-reporting by firms: it requires that companies register as a “Partner of the Public Sector” through an “authorized person” (attorney, notary, banking or tax advisor) registered in the Slovak Republic with no connection to the firm. The other cornerstones of this approach: Slovakia makes the “authorized person” jointly liable for penalties for misreported information and provides free public access to the register. 

Last December, the World Bank hosted an event on beneficial ownership transparency on International Anticorruption Day to draw attention to the abuse of anonymous companies and the detrimental impacts of these practices on the World Bank’s mission to end extreme  poverty. It also helped showcase how a coalition of governments led by the United Kingdom and assisted by the Open Government Partnership is committing to a new global norm on beneficial ownership transparency. The message was clear: governments can lead by example too.  This is particularly important for anticorruption reforms that rely on global shifts in policy for their effectiveness. (For more on technical and policy approaches to beneficial ownership transparency, see Open Ownership’s resources and current Guidance by the Financial Action Task Force). 

A political leader wearing a protective face mask during a pandemic demonstrates personal accountability and sends a signal to the public, normalizing the use of masks.  Slovakia’s communications campaign equated self-protection with the public interest: “protect others and you’ll be protected.” This ethic is a vital but often elusive ingredient for anticorruption reforms to gain traction. Slovakia’s willingness to unmask the beneficial owners of companies that want to do business with the state follows the same public interest principle. Both practices are about accountability. Both will have tangible effects on the country’s ability to control the virus and on the effectiveness of the government’s emergency response. 

Confronting the Covid-19 crisis is not unlike confronting corruption, in this respect: effective institutions and laws are vitally important, but norms and standards – and the example set by leadership – may make all the difference. 


Alex Habershon

Program Manager and Global Lead for Anticorruption, Governance Global Practice

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