A grand cleansing in governance

The pandemic’s economic fallout is forcing governments to shape up quickly. First demands: accountability and transparency.

AP
A woman begs in front an ATM machine covered by iron shields in Beirut, Lebanon, May 21.

The pandemic lockdown has pushed many people to do what they should have done long ago. Clean out closets. Rethink finances. Set new goals. Now entire countries are in cleansing mode. On Thursday, for example, lawmakers in Lebanon agreed to end banking secrecy for public officials. It was a first step toward curbing corruption and the first of many reforms being forced on Lebanon by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.

Since March, more than 100 countries like Lebanon have sought a financial rescue from the International Monetary Fund – the world’s banker of last resort. The aid, however, often comes with strings attached, such as demands for transparency in banking or accountability in how public money is spent. For nations in need, the coronavirus emergency could end up being a healer of old wounds.

“History shows that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better,” states a new report on post-COVID-19 trends from the corruption watchdog Transparency International. In early May, a group of 97 civil society organizations sent a letter to the IMF asking it to ensure that its aid is tied to reforms. Accountability and transparency, the group said, are key “to protecting lives and livelihoods.”

That is especially true for Lebanon, a country that once had a vibrant middle class but now finds more than 50% of its people living below the poverty line. The IMF predicts Lebanon will experience one of the world’s worst recessions this year.

Hunger protests broke out in Beirut a few weeks ago, largely directed at banks and their role in secretly funneling corrupt money out of the country. In May, Lebanon finally opened talks with the IMF. Its leaders were quickly told to make reforms for “inclusive growth” and to widen the social safety net. To be given more funds for medical and educational needs, the government must first stop the flow of illicit money through banks.

Expect other countries to start enacting reforms like those in Lebanon. “We may never return to the world we left behind before COVID-19,” states the Transparency International report. Indeed, a health crisis could bring an awakening to the need for honest and open governance.

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