07/10/2014 02:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2014

The Devil, the Detail, and the Future of Development

Corruption is a disaster for development. It wastes the resources that can build sustainable economies, guts confidence in government, and fuels inequality and conflict. So common sense dictates that massive global efforts to end poverty must find a way to fight corruption, or they will fail.

The world missed its last big chance to do this when it set the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the eight priority areas agreed by the United Nations back in 2000. They expire next year, meaning the international community now has a golden opportunity to correct this oversight when they set their goals for the next 15 years, known as the 'Sustainable Development Goals' (SDGs).

Global Witness has seen the damage that corruption does time and again. Take the case of Nigeria's missing billion dollars, which saw oil giants Shell and Eni pay the Nigerian Government $1.1 billion for one of West Africa's biggest oil blocks in 2011. The money eventually went to a company controlled by the country's former oil minister, Dan Etete. Etete had awarded the block to the company, which he secretly owned, while still in office and was now cashing in. The Nigerian people saw none of the money, which is more than half the total aid received that year and could have paid for 1.7 million girls to go to school for 5 years, in a country where 5.5 million girls are out of school.

There are plenty of other examples which speak to the need to address corruption as part of a joined-up development plan. Don't just take our word for it either: a survey of millions of people around the world identified 'honest and responsive government' as priority #3 out of 16.

The need is clear and the people have spoken. But it is by no means guaranteed that corruption will be covered in the SDGs. The main reason is not that Member States aren't aware of the issue or its impacts, but because corruption is seen as too political to deal with in this forum. Some are happier to keep pouring aid money into traditional development areas like education and health, than to ask tricky questions about what's happening to the domestic resources like oil and mining revenues that should be building the schools and hospitals.

Next week, a group of countries will meet to finalise a shortlist of possible goals and targets for the formal negotiations taking place over the next year. Unfortunately, official statements and private murmurings suggest this sorry history could repeat itself, and corruption could again be written out of the SDGs entirely or addressed only in a superficial way.

Some anti-corruption targets have made it this far in the consultations. They include important commitments like: reducing illicit financial flows, corruption, and bribery; promoting access to information; and giving communities a say in natural resource management. But the devil is in the detail. The language is still very general, and currently lumped together with other important but not directly related issues.

There have also been worrying shifts in emphasis. Of course a vague commitment on access to information is good, but an earlier draft of the shortlist actually specified the kind of information that needed to be available, including government finances and contracting. This is important because it would mean citizens have access to the information they need to hold their government accountable for how money is managed and government contracts are awarded. When these things are done behind closed doors, it is much easier for corrupt officials and companies to siphon off public resources for their personal benefit (such as fast cars and flash property).

These decisions will impact the futures of millions of people over the next 15+ years. So this is our challenge to the U.N.: don't turn a deaf ear on citizens because what they care about is considered politically or technically tricky. There is a lot of money and momentum behind these new goals, and this is a once in a generation chance that we can't afford to get wrong.

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