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When is Fighting Corruption Worth It?

Despite years of effort, there is no clear path to achieving corruption-free institutions. If the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals are to make a difference in the quality of governance, policymakers must focus on proven, measurable approaches, not broad slogans.

COPENHAGEN – Some $1 trillion was lost to corruption last year. This is money that was not available for expanding health care, broadening access to education, improving nutrition, or cleaning up the environment. According to Transparency International, 68% of the world’s countries have a serious corruption problem, and no country is completely immune.

Corruption is one facet of poor governance; indeed, it correlates with ineffective public administration, weak accountability, low transparency, and inconsistent implementation of the rule of law. So it is little wonder that the United Nations’ brand-new Sustainable Development Goals, coming into force this year, aim to fight it. Nonetheless, the SDGs represent a departure from the previous development framework, the Millennium Development Goals, which contained no explicit targets relating to corruption.

Success would have myriad benefits: better public service, higher economic growth, greater faith in democracy. In an ongoing global poll that has so far attracted 9.7 million responses, “an honest and responsive government” is the fourth most popular policy priority, with only education, health care, and better jobs rated higher.

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