Where next for the fight against corruption?

2019-09-02T11:54:14+00:00 17 April 2018|

Speech by David Cameron.


Thank you to Chatham House, Transparency International and the ONE Campaign for inviting me here this evening.

We’ve got three of our finest institutions co-hosting this event.

We’ve got leaders and experts from Parliament, thinktanks, NGOs, businesses, universities and from right across the world with us.

I think that says something about how much people recognise that this issue – corruption – is a vital issue in our world today.


And I’m particularly pleased we are talking about the subject this week, when the Commonwealth has come to our capital.

I was determined to get the Heads of Government Meeting here to London.

I made our case and I fought our corner during the meeting in Malta.

So if you want someone to blame for the traffic here – it’s me.

Now I used to be something of a sceptic about international conferences.

The enormous “roundtables”…

…the “family photos”…

…the signing of communiques whose conclusions have been agreed long before the event has even started.

And yes, all those things are true. But it’s also true that if you have a real purpose behind the conference, if you take the time to put something at its heart, you can get things done. You can effect change.

And that’s what these conferences should be about.

I remember in 2013, when the UK hosted the G8 Summit.

Two things surprised people about it.

First: that I decided to hold it not in London but in Northern Ireland.

Second: that I chose the themes of tax and transparency.

So those who came weren’t just won over by the beauty and potential and tranquillity of County Fermanagh.

But they knew also they had to address subjects which they had been ignoring for too long.

And the truth is that those two things – sharing tax information and spreading transparency – are absolutely key antidotes to corruption.

Of course, no one particularly wants to talk about corruption, because no one is perfect.

I’m certainly not.

Neither is our system.

But if no one is prepared to show any leadership on corruption, nothing gets done.

And we got lots done because of that G8 – which is why, in 2016, I convened the world’s first ever Anti-Corruption Summit.

43 countries coming together, here in London, to commit to beating corruption.

And now here we are – 2018 – with 53 heads of government here for the biannual Commonwealth meeting.

So there’s a really big opportunity this week to galvanise the globe in defeating this scourge…

…to say to every leader, wherever they are from: “you should be making this issue one of your country’s biggest priorities”.


Because this isn’t some niche issue.

Indeed, there is scarcely an issue that is more widespread, more pernicious and more entrenched.

Corruption threatens people all around the world.

It stops them from getting the jobs they need…

…the security they deserve…

…and the justice they crave.

It steals the natural resources that should be theirs… and it thwarts the public services that could be theirs.

And its victims are disproportionately the people surviving below the poverty line, in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Corruption also threatens us right here at home.

If you get to the heart of some of the biggest problems we face today – terrorism, conflict, trafficking, organised crime – you will usually find corruption lurking there.

For me, this is personal.

Time and again as Prime Minister I saw it as the driving force behind so many of the events that took place.

Why did people support the Arab Spring?

Because the things people wanted – “bread, freedom and social justice” – were stolen and stifled by their supposed protectors.

Why did the people of Ukraine rise up at the Euromaidan?

Because they were fed up with their kleptocratic, corrupt leaders.

Why were the Taliban and other extremist groups able to recruit so many followers?

Because they tapped into people’s – particularly young, disaffected people’s – grievances about the lack of justice.

Corruption was also the blockage to so many things we wanted to achieve.

We wanted to help eradicate extreme poverty.

Yet what stops some of the poorest countries on our planet – like South Sudan or Burundi – turning aid money into food and healthcare and education?


We wanted countries to help pull themselves out of poverty.

Yet why are people in nations as far apart as Equatorial Guinea and Venezuela so poor when their countries are so rich with minerals?


We wanted to lead the world in great sporting events that bring people together.

Yet how did Russia end up winning the bid for the 2018 World Cup?

I’ll let you fill in the blank…


The things I saw as Prime Minister inspired me to focus on this issue after I left office.

I have spent the last year chairing the first ever Commission on Fragile States.

Alongside Oxford University and the London School of Economics, it brings together academics, experts, politicians, and people working on the ground at the cutting edge of these countries.

Fragile states tend to be riven by corruption and conflict.

Their institutions lack legitimacy and authority.

Their governments lack the capacity to deliver the basic services upon which people depend.

These are countries who lurch from one failure to another.

Some are poorer than they were 40 years ago.

And soon half the world’s poor will live in such countries.

If we don’t tackle this fragility, millions of people will remain trapped in the poverty it causes…

…and its consequences – like terrorism, mass migration, organised crime – will be visited upon us.

Let’s remember: they’re not necessarily fragile because of who lives there or where they are in the world.

It’s not geography or ethnicity or history.

It’s the failure of governance and leadership.

How else do we explain neighbouring countries with such different outcomes…

…Botswana and Zimbabwe; North Korea and South Korea; Colombia and Venezuela?

Countries that have so much in common, and yet whose fates have turned out to be so different.

In each case, governance and leadership prove to be the greatest factor in determining their futures.

And at the heart of that is corruption.


Of course, fighting corruption is not easy.

One problem – indeed one of the paradoxes – is that to the rich world it seems remote and irrelevant…

…and to the developing world it seems inevitable – even the norm.

Paying bribes to the police, watching Presidents build their gilded palaces while their people starve – that’s just how life is.

But it’s not irrelevant – corruption affects every single person in every part of the world.

Nor is it inevitable. It can be beaten.

What’s required is a laser-like focus on what’s wrong and how to put it right.

You can’t beat corruption unless you can see who owns what.

Which is why it’s so important that over 30 countries are on their way to implementing public registers to disclose the real ‘beneficial’ owners of companies.

You can’t beat corruption unless you see who does – and doesn’t – pay their taxes.

Again, that’s why it’s so crucial that tax authorities in more than 219 jurisdictions will now automatically share information to help root out tax evasion.

You can’t beat corruption unless assets that are stolen by corrupt dictators are returned.

That’s why it was right that we set up the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, which is building capacity and technical support to make sure countries get back what is rightfully theirs.


But we all know there’s so much more to do. So let’s be clear during this Commonwealth conference the five things we need to work on.

First, let’s get our own house in order.

G7 and OECD countries are not blameless.

In fact, when it comes to corrupt regimes and businesses, it is often our lawyers defending them, our PR companies spinning for them, our property market providing a place to stash their dodgy cash.

We cannot lecture the world on corruption if it is going on within our own borders.

So we must stamp it out – including within the international legal and financial systems we host.

The action on openness about property ownership is long overdue and I’m delighted that the Prime Minister and her Anti-Corruption Champion John Penrose have committed to addressing that.

There’s more to be done. The Overseas Territories have moved a huge way and are putting in place registers of ownership. In time, I would like to see all of those required to meet the same transparency standards as we do here in the UK.

And let’s make sure that European countries follow our leadership in implementing and making them public too.

Second, we must be more demanding of other countries.

African leaders must persuade their citizens that this will truly be a watershed moment…

…and they have the perfect opportunity to do so, during this, the African Union Year of Anti-Corruption.

The drive must come from them, but there’s something we can do to help.

In our fragile states report we argue for an end to policy conditionality…

…where countries only receive aid if they adhere to our policy priorities.

We argue it should be replaced with governance conditionality…

…where the offer is this: “we will back your plan, your priorities, but if you steal or waste the money you are given, if you are corrupt, that aid will cease”.

Ultimately we want all countries to be able to fund their own public services.

And, as I said earlier, we must do more to help them do that – to ensure they’re not robbed of the taxes they’re owed.

Some corporations game the system and pay as little tax in some countries as they possibly can.

But here’s the thing: aid agencies and NGOs have been paying too little attention to countries’ abilities to raise their own revenue.

As a government, it’s much harder to fight corruption unless you have legitimate sources of revenue…

…to pay your public servants…

…to deliver public services…

…and to uphold your rule of law.

So let’s say it tonight: with some countries only raising 5 of 10 per cent of their GDP in taxes each year – year after year…

…this issue needs a far higher profile.

I am one of the strongest supporters of the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of its income on overseas aid.

We made a promise to the poorest people in the world and we kept that promise.

And what that does, I think, is gives us a legitimate platform to be very clear on this issue…

…to say to these countries: we will continue to support you, but you know and we know that if you’re not building the systems for collecting taxes, then you cannot expect the world to keep on paying you forever.

And let’s be frank.

We need to give that message to the wealthy people in these countries.

Stop making excuses.

Pay your taxes.

Third, we must harness technology, social media and transparency.

We’ve heard about the bad sides of things like Facebook and Bitcoin recently.

Let’s remember the good sides.

Technology can drive a revolution in people power and transparency.


Because there are now cost-free ways of seeing what money is spent where, and by whom.

There’s a huge opportunity in what’s known as DevTech, applying the insights of technology to the development sector.

With these advances, we can track the local budgets…

…see the money is being properly spent…

…expose the bribe payers…

…hold the leaders to account for the promises they’ve made…

…and we can make corruption harder.

Fourth, we must focus on implementation.

Too often activists move on in search of the next campaign ‘win’ before those hard fought policies are properly embedded.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Publish what you pay. The indices on corruption drawn up by TI.

These are global gold standards and we need to measure progress and implementation every step of the way.

So yes, let’s fund that research, let’s make those recommendations, let’s pass those laws, let’s devise those strategies – but let’s also see them through, start to finish.

And empowering civil society – relying on their eyes and ears – will be vital to that.

Just as technology has made journalists out of citizens…

…let’s use it to make corruption-fighters out of them too.


The fifth and perhaps the most important thing to work on relates to a broader issue about our democracies. Here, and all over the world.

Because a key element of being a real democracy is having the means – the rules, norms and institutions – to eradicate corruption.

And I use the term “real democracy” advisedly. Because I don’t just mean the process of holding elections every five years, as important as that is.

I mean all the things that make up a real democracy.

The rule of law. Freedom of speech. The ability to uncover wrongdoing of those in authority without fear. An active civil society that doesn’t require license or permission from the state.

We take these things for granted. Yet in so many countries they remain utterly unattainable, and in others they’re tragically being dismantled in front of our eyes.

In these uncertain times – when people are questioning whether democracy is really that important to prosperity – let’s double down on what we believe in and make the argument for real democracy.

Where do people really opt to come and live, work and retire?

Where do young people see a real future?

Where would businesses rather invest long term?

Somewhere that your rights are protected, your property is safe, your freedom is guaranteed and your access to the law is secure.

These vital components of our democracy aren’t peripheral to the right vision for Britain.

We mustn’t fall for the argument that there are somehow shortcuts to success.

Remember: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.

So let’s celebrate the strength of real democracy…

…its importance in driving corruption from our societies…

…and its centrality to prosperity and peace in the modern world – for all our countries.

Thank you.