09/23/2010 06:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tackling Corruption at the MDG Summit: Promises, Promises

In a time of constrained financial resources, leaders at the Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York this week underscored the need to not only continue to provide aid, but to ensure successful results from that aid. Yet, despite ample evidence that corruption undermines effective development results and will impede achieving the MDGs, the final summit action plan, Keeping the Promise: United to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, made few tangible anti-corruption commitments, relying instead on high level statements, such as:

[i]ntegrity, accountability and transparency are crucial for managing resources and combating the abuse, corruption and organized crime that adversely affect society, particularly the poor and vulnerable. Good governance goals should be pursued in conjunction with development.

In his speech to the UN, outlining how the U.S. administration's development strategy will aim to secure results, President Obama wisely noted that "if the international community just keeps doing the same things in the same way, we will miss many development goals." Regrettably, that is what many donors and recipients seem to be doing.

At an MDG Summit side meeting this week, Transparency International launched a study indicating how corruption is a major obstacle to reaching the MDGs by 2015. The study, The Anti-Corruption Catalyst: Realizing the MDGS by 2015, demonstrates that the demand for bribes is directly related to childbirth death rates. Corruption has a corrosive effect on development efforts to promote literacy, access to health care, education and clean water-- important MDG goals. For example, corruption in water projects raises the cost of connecting a household to clean water by as much as 45 percent.

Increased funding to achieve the MDG goals is necessary but not sufficient. It must be accompanied by a strategy and resources to mainstream transparency and accountability into development programs. Transparency of aid flows, public revenues and expenditures, cracking down on those who demand and those who pay bribes to secure donor-funded deals, denying safe haven to corrupt officials or stolen assets and protecting citizens who speak out are essential, easily achieved but, regrettably, not yet central elements of development strategies.

Calling corruption "the single greatest barrier to prosperity," President Obama reminded those at the summit and, particularly the G20, of the need for action. In his address today to the UN General Assembly he called on members for "specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement" -- next year. But over 140 governments are already parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption and the G-20 members have also made important commitments at Pittsburgh to take action. The question is whether these governments will implement their commitments or, in the president's words, "just keep doing the same things in the same way." Corruption will continue to eat away at resources unless and until there is action on specific, time-bound transparency, accountability and integrity requirements and the resources to achieve them.