When the US State Department announced the new International Anticorruption Champions Award last month, it set off ripples of media coverage across the world. The award honors anti-corruption advocates in countries where democracy is under attack and the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for corruption to thrive.
A dozen inaugural winners — nominated by US embassies — were named, including Ecuador’s attorney general; the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation; and a director at the Central Bank of Iraq.
“It is deliberate and it is going to be part of a larger strategy. ... So expect to see and hear more about how the State Department is going to be elevating this issue [corruption] in our diplomacy.”
“It is deliberate and it is going to be part of a larger strategy,” said James Walsh, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “So expect to see and hear more about how the State Department is going to be elevating this issue [corruption] in our diplomacy.”
For some winners, including Anjali Bhardwaj in Delhi, the recognition and support is a relief amid an environment of rising hostility toward anti-corruption advocates.
“We've had a lot of attacks and labeling of those who question the government. They have been labeled as anti-national. ... They have been incarcerated and charged under terror laws even.”
“We've had a lot of attacks and labeling of those who question the government. They have been labeled as anti-national,” said Bhardwaj, a mother of two girls who has been a leader in India’s transparency and accountability movement for 20 years. “They have been incarcerated and charged under terror laws even.”
The awards are a way for the US to send a message of solidarity, said Abigail Bellows, a former member of the State Department who’s now a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“You have all of these activists just wrestling the beast of corruption in the shadows and these sort of awards [say] that the US government is paying attention and standing by them."
“You have all of these activists just wrestling the beast of corruption in the shadows and these sort of awards [say] that the US government is paying attention and standing by them,” she said. “I think it can have a lot of impact, both in terms of sometimes bolstering their physical safety, but also emotionally and spiritually.”
Bellows said the US has long fought international corruption in a reactive way by freezing assets or denying visas to foreign nationals involved in criminal activity. Positive reinforcement is a new approach.
“We’ve been doing a lot. But there was something missing,” Walsh said. “You have to highlight these courageous individuals because it's so hard. We just need some encouragement every now and then.”
Bhardwaj founded a transparency group called the Society for Citizens' Vigilance Initiative that pioneered report cards for legislators. She’s also co-convener of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, which successfully lobbied for the passage of a national whistleblower protection act, and the creation of an anti-corruption ombudsman.
“This award is a recognition of the many, many people and groups in the country who are continuing with that struggle,” Bhardwaj said. “It's not easy for those who are sort of shining the light on corruption and abuse of power. I think anywhere that support comes from is always welcome.”
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