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Transparency and anti-corruption – lessons from UN Global Compact for good governance

Lubna Qassim posted this on

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I was delighted to speak at the UN Global Compact, hosted in Dubai last month.  The focus of the day was the contribution of the private sector in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – our session was looking at helping to achieve SDG 16:  peace, justice and strong institutions, with fellow speakers from Pepsi and Oando.  We covered transparency, whistle-blowing and making anti-corruption policies work.

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Here I share stories and observations from the event, as to how we create governance that works.

  1. Governance frameworks are not enough

This is a subject clearly close to my heart.  Transparency is at the very core of good governance.  And while governments – and the UN – have their part to play in creating a framework to ensure accountability and transparency, every organisation also has to do their bit to make it work.  That includes the private sector.

In my session, I looked at how far the UAE has come as a country, but also where we still have challenges.  Just 47 years ago, when the UAE was born, we were pearl divers and fishermen with agriculture in a few oases.  Now the UAE is a sophisticated, global brand.  Our government has recognised the importance of a strong legal framework and governance to give confidence to everyone doing business with us – but the legal framework alone is not enough.

  1. Challenging a culture of deference for elders and impact for family businesses

One of the things we have to consider is the culture in our region.  In the Middle East we have great respect for our elders, for the heads of our families, for those more senior to us.  There is much to value in this, but equally it can make it hard for more junior people to challenge their elders; to say ‘I don’t think what we are doing is right’.  It goes against everything we were brought up to believe and practice.

At Emirates NBD, one way we have addressed this issue is to introduce a whistleblowing policy.  This is a very bold step in preventing corruption and ensuring transparency.  But it is no good just introducing the policy – we have had to work extremely hard to ensure people have confidence in using it and understand why they should speak up if they feel a practice is at odds with our policies.  We have put a lot of effort into creating awareness, training our employees as to what this means and giving assurance to employees if they speak out.  Perhaps the most important element of the policy is that we will reward employees who speak up – not penalise them.

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The other area where this has a massive impact is in family businesses.  The respect for elder family members makes governance in family businesses particularly sensitive.

I told the story of a UAE family where a brother was due to take over the business.  However, he looked at the skills and ability of all his family – and decided that his sister was the best person to lead the company for the future.  This was a wise decision and their business has grown from a relatively small company to a multi-million conglomerate.

His insight and selflessness is a great example of what companies need to do – looking for the best people to lead a business, not necessarily just choosing the ‘elder statesman’.

  1. Government bodies must collaborate

Anyone who has worked with me will know I am all about collaboration!

A few years ago, I worked in our Ministry of the Economy to oversee the legal passage of some of our most significant economic legislative reforms.  I saw that many who work in government can become competitive and protective of their own areas – this is nothing special to the UAE, government departments across the world battle with this issue.

The problem with this is that each department becomes self-serving, no-one talks to the others and the focus goes on making that department look good, not achieving what is needed for the greater good.  And that stops good governance.  You get poor legislation or legislation that is unworkable – so people play games with it.

Getting everyone to collaborate is difficult, but it is one of the most important steps in governance that works.

  1. Stamping out corruption in organisations

I was very impressed with Ayatola Jagun who followed me on the speaking platform.   As compliance officer and company secretary at Oando, one of Africa’s largest oil companies, Ayatola talked very honestly about the issues of working against corruption in Nigeria.

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She said that to change systemic corruption you have to know who the power players are and focus on education and innovation.  The approach that Oanda is taking is leadership from the top, an ambassadorial role in training and mentoring on anti-corruption and being active with local and global organisations focusing on anti-corruption.

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I am always looking for good definitions of critical governance phrases.  The best definition I have come across for corruption is from Transparency International, ‘Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.’

This is why transparency is so important – for organisations, companies and countries.  Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.  That word ‘entrusted’ sums it up.  If others give us their trust then it is up to all of us to ensure we deliver back on that trust.

My thanks to UN Global Compact for inviting me to speak, to my wonderful fellow speakers and to the organisers for such a thought-provoking day.

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