G20 and corruption: why gender matters

Research indicates that when a gender participation "tipping point" has been reached there will be genuine change in policy direction and ultimate impact. If the G20 is serious about tackling corruption it needs more women leaders.

Maggie Murphy
13 November 2014

Tackling corruption is a standing item on the G20 agenda. The cost of corruption amounts to 5% global GDP each year, far overshadowing the ambitious collective growth targets of 2% GDP above trend that G20 Finance Ministers have set themselves to achieve over the next five years. G20 Leaders are also set to endorse a new 2 year Anti-Corruption Action Plan seeking to strengthen cross-border cooperation and increase integrity in government and business. Around US$1 trillion dollars are paid in bribes each year to secure contracts that should go to the best quality bid not the one that paid the best bribe.

Will these anti-corruption measures ultimately impact positively on women? Can sustainable growth be possible “when the economic potential of half the world is ignored”? And is there a role for women in bringing about cleaner, fairer systems with more equal access to business opportunities and services?

Are women less corrupt than men?

Back in 1999, World Bank research across 150 countries found women were less likely to take part in corrupt transactions than men. Other studies have suggested  this is because women are more risk-averse, positing a link between traditional care-giving roles and less individualistic and opportunistic behaviour. To try to make the most of the possible link, some countries have tested innovative anti-corruption schemes. A coordinated “feminization” process in Peru has resulted in women holding 93% of traffic police roles in Lima, and an alleged drop in the level of bribes being paid on the street. As one taxi driver said, “we all know that you can’t bribe women.”

More recent research has demonstrated that higher levels of female participation in government in transition countries is also linked to lower rates of corruption. The direction of causality is sometimes disputed, but it appears that where countries are more democratic, there is more representation of women, with possibly more effective checks on corruption and mismanagement. Irrespective of whether women are intrinsically less corrupt than men, it seems clear that increased female participation in government is linked to fairer systems and less corruption.

The impact of corruption on women

Transparency International has found that women experience and report on corruption in a different way to men. In our Global Corruption Barometer 2013 we found that globally, men said they had paid a bribe more often than women (27% globally to 22%).  The underlying reasons for this are not yet clear and merit further research. Do women pay fewer bribes? Or are women more tolerant of corruption? We do not know the answers to these questions for sure, but we do know that the every-day impact of corruption on women can be acute.

Corruption is not gender-neutral. Rather it can construct barriers to women seeking to access basic goods and services. The UNDP has documented how women, as primary care-givers experience higher rates of corruption and extortion for access to medical treatment, education and other public services. Additional arbitrary costs to access education can have the knock-on effect of girls dropping out of school sooner than boys as families try to economise. Corruption also impacts women’s access to credit, other financial services and access to participating in public life. There are  various studies that suggest women can lack information, experience and resources to engage with corrupt networks, which includes knowing how to negotiate the “old boys networks” that nominate and decide on electoral candidates.

Corruption is not simply a matter of petty bribes to local officials. The impact of large-scale corrupt and dodgy deals on women can be huge. According to the OECD, corruption drains between 20 and 25 per cent of public procurement budgets. Those funds come direct from the public purse and should be used for the crucial social and physical infrastructure, such as the schools and hospitals that citizens deserve and pay for. The cost of corruption goes beyond the monetary however.  Corruption leads to projects or services that are shoddy in design and potentially dangerous in construction. You only need to think back to the broken building codes, ignored inspections and unenforced safety laws that led to the horror of 600 lost lives, mainly women, in the Bangladesh factory collapse last year.

What can the G20 do on corruption that will impact positively on women?

The G20 is set to adopt bold new promises of investment in infrastructure to reach new collective growth targets. If the G20 can include strong accountability and transparency measures in their projects right from the start, we level the global playing field and make business transactions and bidding processes more open to scrutiny. This makes it harder for companies to win bids because they paid a bribe or gave a gift, rather than because they had the best product to offer. At the same increased accountability measures means we will also start to see fairer decision-making processes resulting in the right projects in the right place to service the right people. Women need to be part of the design of these anti-corruption strategies to ensure that society as a whole will win.

The strength of the G20 is in its ability to increase cooperation across borders and collectively raise standards across the board. On this single issue of public procurement transparency, especially around new infrastructure projects, the G20 should collectively agree to adopt simple transparency measures that would have huge positive knock-on effect for communities at the local level around the world. 

When there is a lack of proactive disclosure of information around government decision-making, it is easier to hide manipulation of decisions which could favour friends and associates, not least those involved in the “old-boys” networks. The G20 should commit to publish selection criteria and information on how contracts will be awarded in a timely manner before any procurement process commences.

G20 governments should also commit to disclose contracts in full as well as the identity of the real, living people who ultimately own, or control or benefit from the bidding companies. Corrupt officials can award themselves, family, friends or associates a contract with impunity if they hide behind secret companies, making it impossible to see who is ultimately behind the bidding companies.

G20 governments could also commit to publish information on the implementation and completion of the contract in a timely and routine manner to increase government accountability for their decisions on how to spend public resources. Independent monitors need to be part of this process to enhance scrutiny and ensure communities are receiving the best and most appropriate product. Governments need to build the capacity and ensure the space for women to get involved in the full budget process, from planning to oversight. If women are included in the design and development of anti-corruption strategies they can also help build governance systems that are more responsive to women’s needs.

These measures to enhance transparency and inclusivity would significantly clean up the relationship between government and business, rebuild trust, and open the way for better quality, fairer bidding from a range of newcomers. It would be interesting to see whether those newcomers would include a new wave of female headed companies who may be currently edged out of the way decisions are made in some countries.

Transparency International has documented that when a gender participation “tipping point” has been reached, you see genuine change in policy direction and ultimate impact. That tipping point is around 30%. Currently 25% of the G20 Leaders are women. We do not want to wait for another female G20 leader to come on board to see specific new gender equality processes come into place. But we do hope that through the corruption track we will help build fairer systems that no longer pose unnecessary and unfair barriers on women from accessing a range of services, whether it be at the local health clinic or in the heart of power.



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