Starting a new decade with renewed focus on corruption in conservation and natural resource management

This blog post captures perspectives from representing WWF and the TNRC project at the 8th Conference of States Parties (CoSP) of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in December 2019. Among other developments, the conference passed the first UNCAC Resolution on corruption as it relates to the environment and launched the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) guide on addressing corruption for wildlife management authorities. These developments are part of an important increasing effort to advance global focus on the relationship between corruption, conservation and natural resource management (NRM)—and what to do about it.

As 2019 was heading into its final weeks, the United Nations convened the 8th UNCAC* Conference of the States Parties. UNCAC was a milestone in defining a globally-agreed priority for states to work both singly and together to address corruption as a domestic and international problem. Though the UN moves slowly, new issues have gained attention through the UNCAC process over the years. This year, a hard-fought resolution was passed on addressing corruption that relates to crimes that impact the environment (the final resolution still has to be edited and translated before it’s published: check here in the next month or so). UNCAC resolutions typically leave a lot of room for countries to take new actions (or not) as they interpret their own legal systems, but this does put the issue of corruption that damages conservation and natural resource outcomes on the formal global anti-corruption agenda. As such, it’s a valuable counterpart to the CITES 2017 Resolution on the same topic (though limited only to corruption affecting CITES processes).

It’s a promising signal that the anti-corruption, conservation and NRM communities are getting closer to joining forces to tackle the corruption that is undermining efforts to protect biodiversity and communities—not to mention the whole planet—that rely on fish, forests and wildlife to survive and thrive. While high-level resolutions are a strong start, natural resource corruption needs to also be embedded in national strategies and in the design of sub-national anti-corruption, conservation and NRM programs, to deliver the change that’s needed. There are a lot of good first steps (like UNODC’s initiatives below, the work of TNRC partners TRAFFIC, the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, and other organizations like Transparency International and the EAGLE Network), but there’s still a lot to do.

"The conservation community needs to get more comfortable talking about the corruption that undermines our work."

I spoke on a panel at the CoSP to launch a new guide on addressing corruption for wildlife management authorities from the UNODC and shared the important role that civil society plays in supporting domestic authorities to achieve their conservation and NRM goals. More importantly, I talked about how conservation NGOs rely on transparent, effective counterparts in government, and the many ways that corruption can undermine those partnerships. Unreliable data, delegitimized partner institutions, wasted capacity building resources, and disillusionment of passionate supporters and funders are just a few of the risks that corruption poses for the conservation and NRM community. Not to mention the devastating damage when a critical individual or species is lost, a fishery is decimated, or a forest laid low. My co-presenters highlighted work being done in the Kenya Wildlife Service and with Senegalese fishing authorities to assess and address corruption risks, as well as work that other non-governmental groups are doing to promote better governance of natural resources and places. (UNODC has another good guide on corruption risks in fisheries and is developing one on forests.)

One of my key take-aways from our conversations is that the conservation community needs to get more comfortable talking about the corruption that undermines our work. It’s not always easy, but as a colleague on the panel said to me, “start with the natural resources” and then the conversation about corruption will be about achieving a shared goal of protecting those resources.

In order to do that effectively, we also need to get better at understanding exactly what types of corruption are happening, where, by whom, and for what reasons. This disaggregated approach is essential; corruption isn’t just one thing and it doesn’t always happen for the same reasons, so addressing it more effectively in our work won’t look the same everywhere.

And then we need to do the work. The 2020s need to be a decade of joint action to address the challenges that confront us. This year will bring several opportunities for the conversation to continue.

  • TNRC will be out in force at the World Conservation Congress in Marseille in June, collaborating on panel on raising corruption on the conservation agenda and a campus session to strengthen anti-corruption knowledge among conservation and NRM practitioners.
  • TNRC partners have proposed several sessions at the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Seoul, also in June, to further discussions with our anti-corruption colleagues on how we can better work together to address various aspects of corruption encountered in our work.
  • A Special Session of the UN General Assembly against corruption has been mandated for the first half of 2021, and the preparatory work for an actionable political declaration will be launched in 2020. The conservation community should consider what voice and viewpoint we want to have in that forum.

And while we’re talking at events like these, we need to be setting an agenda that turns our words into actions. TNRC’s focus will be on providing knowledge and learning opportunities for practitioners. For those of you out there doing the work, what other opportunities do you know about that could help integrate anti-corruption dialogue and action in our work? What would help you do that better? Let us know!

*The UNCAC was adopted by the General Assembly in October 2003, came into force in 2005 and currently has 186 signatories. It is the only legally binding global instrument against corruption. Regional conventions also exist: the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (1996), OECD Anti-Bribery Convention (1999), the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) conventions (2002 and 2003), the EU Convention against Corruption Involving Public Officials (2005), the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2006), the Arab Anti-Corruption Convention (2010). Why so many, and do we need more? Read some thoughts from an anti-corruption scholar here.

© James Morgan / WWF-US

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus