Monday, February 22, 2021

Corruption 2 – What Governments are doing (and not doing)

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay


There are two major international institutions which seek to end corruption. The first is the UN and the second is GRECO the Group of Nations against Corruption. Although based in Europe, the latter is also open to other nations outside the EU. Their main instruments and methods are set out below.

The Role of the UN

1.       UNCAC – The UN Convention Against Corruption was adopted in 2003 and by May 2020, 187 countries had become signatories, promising to do what they could to eliminate corruption.

The Convention basically calls for countries to cooperate in preventing and criminalising activities such as trading in influence and abuse of power by governments and for the elimination of financial fraud and money laundering in the private sector. It also seeks to strengthen international law enforcement and to create effective legal mechanisms for the recovery of funds. To achieve its aims, there are peer review mechanisms as to how member states are doing on several dimensions and it also stresses the need for transparency and the involvement of civil society and Non – Government Organisations in the reporting process.


In order to achieve these aims, each country is required to submit a self -assessment. This is followed by a peer review and then, in conjunction with representatives from this government, it produces a report which it is not obliged to publish, though an executive summary is placed on the UNODC website. If you want to read the reports for your country - I don't think you can see anyone else's, then just type its name into the search bar. Publications usually come in several languages.

There are several weaknesses within the system. Firstly many countries lack the technical capacity to adequately respond to the questions being asked. Secondly, it relies initially on self -assessment and there is little transparency throughout the process. Civil society and NGOs can be excluded at any stage and a government can appoint or obtain data from anyone it likes. Lastly, there is little compulsion about the process.  In the three years that had elapsed since the beginning of the last review cycle in 2015, only 20 out of 184 countries had completed the review process by May 2019.


 What GRECO does

2.       GRECO -  The Group of Nations Against Corruption

Begun in 1999 by the Council of Europe’s anti- corruption body, it now has 50 members including the USA.  Broadly speaking, it has similar aims to the UN Convention “Preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments (top executive functions) and law enforcement agencies”.[6] Additionally it concerns itself with issues such as the confiscation of the proceeds of corruption and anti -corruption policies in public administration and how they are transposed into domestic law and practice.  In its Third Round of Evaluations it looked into the funding of political parties and elections including issues such as conflicts of interest, revolving doors, declaration of assets and accountability mechanisms while the Fourth and current Round looks at members of national parliaments, judges and prosecutors. In the new evaluation round, GRECO will monitor the measures that states have in place to prevent and combat corruption in functions such as those of heads of State, heads of central government, members of central government (e.g. ministers), as well as other political appointees who exercise top executive functions such as deputy ministers, State Secretaries, heads and members of a minister’s private office and senior political officials.[6]

Unfortunately, like UNCAC, GRECO relies on peer pressure and mutual evaluations for its effect and does not have a mandate to measure the occurrence of corrupt practices. [Transparency International is better placed to do this – see previous post on this topic]. On the plus side, it does insist on site visits rather than self -reporting and thus its evaluations are considered to be of higher quality, especially as they seek to include a broader range of respondents.

Disappointingly, according to its 2020 report, only 27% of its 2019 recommendations have so far been implemented.  As the president remarked in the Foreword to the report, "This explains to a large extent why people’s trust in politics is very low and will be even lower if politicians don’t step up their compliance with integrity standards.”

Where do you turn when government itself is part of the problem?  That will be the subject of a later post.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Ovarian Cancer Week


Image by jiao tang from Pixabay

To get away from the depressing subject of global corruption, I went to a fabulous fundraiser yesterday. It was a burlesque workshop with boas and bubbles and a lot of really fun women. There was however a serious side to it.

The workshop was hosted by SHE which stands for Support, Hope and Education. This group informs people about Gynaecological Cancer and provides help and support to women with Ovarian Cancer. As it also happens to be Ovarian Cancer week, we’ll talk a bit about it here.


Ovarian Cancer is the seventh and eighth most common cancer in women (it varies by location) and is among the most under -diagnosed and deadly. Unlike Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer, there is as yet no screening test in the early stages of the disease and in the later stages the prognosis is not very good.  At present more developed countries have the highest rates. The USA for example has around 21,000 diagnosed cases and 14,000 deaths a year. The EU recorded around 300,000 new cases annually with 200,000 deaths in 2012, with Central and Eastern Europe faring the worst. Closer to home, Australia has an average of four diagnoses and three deaths per day, yet India , China, Western Africa and Micronesia recorded much lower rates. A word of caution here though. Given the difficulty of detection, low numbers in less developed countries may reflect lack of data and lack of diagnostic facilities and resources. However, westernised lifestyles do appear to be strongly implicated.

 Risk Factors

Risk factors for Ovarian Cancer include having a family history of breast, bowel or ovarian cancer, having had breast cancer, being over 50, having endometriosis, having no children or having children late in life, using HRT, smoking and obesity or having genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.


Ovarian Cancer is largely asymptomatic in the early stages and the symptoms are easily mistaken for a number of other conditions. Typical symptoms include – appetite loss, feeling tired for no good reason, unexplained weight loss or gain,  feeling full after eating only a small amount, indigestion, bloating, pressure or abdominal pain in the abdomen or pelvic region, a need to urinate often or urgently, changed bowel habits, post -menopausal bleeding or irregular periods. I know that sounds like most of us at some time or other, but if any or all of these symptoms last more than three weeks, you should see your doctor. Early detection is vital.

What our local SHE branch is doing?

Seeking qualified medical help for gynaecological problems isn’t so easy in Tasmania. There is only one specialist for the entire state so patients must come from distant places for diagnosis and treatment. One of the aims of the Tasmanian branch of SHE is to establish a Wellness sanctuary for women and their carers to rest and recover from medical treatment. It hopes to include workshops, yoga and chat groups as well as being able to refer patients and carers to services such as nutritionists, physios and psychologists.

For further information and support:

In Tasmania: She

In Australia: Ovarian Cancer Australia  

(Note this group also has a program for male partners of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer)

International :

In the USA: The Kansas University Cancer Centre 

In the UK:  The Eve Appeal

 Stoppress: 17/2/2021 There could be some good news on on the way. Heard a snippet on the financial news that there may soon be an early diagnostic test for Ovarian Cancer.


Saturday, February 13, 2021

Corruption – That other pandemic


While countries have been preoccupied with Covid 19, another pandemic has been silently stalking the land. Although corruption has always been a problem to varying degrees, the UN believes that the pandemic has allowed far more corruption than usual – in part because of the large flows of money involved and because the need for emergency measures has allowed nefarious activities to flourish with minimal oversight and accountability as to how these funds are disbursed.

What do we mean by corruption?

The UN defines corruption as “the abuse of power or entrusted power for financial gain.” Corruption takes many forms. It’s easy to point to the legendary dictator and Ruler for Life who sold his African nation’s resources to buy himself a mansion in Malibu, or the passport control officer at a popular tourist destination who demands a few dollars extra for letting you pass through unhindered.“Do you have a little money for tea?” is apparently the prelude to a bribe demand in many parts of Asia. South Korea has Chongi, a gift or bribe paid to teachers by parents to ensure that their children get good marks. In other regions you pay officials a little to access government services such as health care or to get the police to attend a crime. 

In developed countries corruption tends to be less visible but may involve much larger amounts. Sometimes it’s outright bribery, kickbacks or political donations or the official who takes “a brown paper bag” of money to turn a blind eye to health or safety violations or who allows a development to go ahead, knowing that the consequences will be damaging to the environment. Perhaps it’s about awarding lucrative contracts or jobs to your mates in exchange for personal favours or taking shares in a company you know will prosper as a result of a forthcoming policy. In short, it’s any use of an official position to advance one’s own.  Closely related are tax avoidance and the diversion of money to off -shore tax havens so that wealth intended to benefit the whole of society benefits only a few individuals. 

Sad to say, Australia is among the countries which has done badly over the last couple of years, slipping to 11th place on the Global Transparency Index well behind Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland. This is no surprise as much legislation has been passed by an appointed committee of business people without parliamentary scrutiny. Even when parliament has met, debate has been gagged, Freedom of Information has been restricted, whistleblowers have been gaoled and the press which normally acts as a brake on parliamentary excess has been hobbled by a partisan commercial press and lack of funds for the public broadcaster as well as the Auditor General’s Department. Some groups aligned with the party in power have been substantially enriched at the expense of others – see for example what has happened with respect to post bushfire recovery or other grants which were also handed out in a very partisan way without regard for departmental recommendations or on the basis of need.

 Several other countries including Mexico, Brazil, Canada and the Philippines have also restricted the right to Freedom of Information during the pandemic and at least two Indonesian officials have been charged with bribery offences relating to Covid 19 Aid.

Why it matters




As Transparency International* points out, “Corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development, increases inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis.” It also damages a country’s international reputation and makes investors less likely to invest. The IMF estimates that for every one unit fall on the Global Transparency Index, per Capita foreign investment falls by 11%.

Despite the pandemic some countries such as New Zealand and Denmark have been able to lift their rankings to reach equal first in 2020 as the least corrupt countries, so the pandemic is no excuse. Interestingly, during the Trump era, the USA slipped 8 ranks to #23 since 2017 which has no doubt contributed to the general level of unrest and dissatisfaction directed at the Capital. We hope for a speedy recovery under President Joe Biden who at least hasn't put his family members into positions of power.

*Transparency International is a think tank which was started in Germany in 1993. It tracks the performance of 180 countries based on a variety of measures such as bribery in the public sector, diversion of public funds, effective procurement, adequacy of legal frameworks, access to information and legal protection for journalists, whistleblowers and investigators.

How the rankings are calculated 




Unfortunately these rankings do not include tax fraud or illicit flows of money. Anyone who is in any doubt about the extent of this problem should take a look at the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers to get an idea of how much leakage there is out of national economies, though these are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.The IMF estimates that around $1.5. to $ 2 Trillion dollars are lost from global economies in this manner and this can have a significant impact on GDP, even bankrupting small economies as well as deterring investors.  See the following video which explains this more fully.

The Cost of Corruption


What can we do about it?

In the first instance, if you become aware of any form of corruption, you should contact Transparency International which has 100 offices in 60 countries which provide free and confidential legal advice and also do campaigning and investigations. It also has a number of Toolkits for use by schools, business, the media and others to encourage responsive and accountable government. We will talk more about this broader global push to end corruption next time.


Saturday, February 06, 2021

4 . The Future of Science


                                                                                                       -Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Australia's new Chief Scientist speaks on techno-optimism, renewable energy and encouraging STEM

Tim Dean, The Conversation

Dr Alan Finkel took over as Australia’s new Chief Scientist on January 25 this year.

He is a respected neuroscientist, engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, and was the Chancellor of Monash University from 2008 to 2015 and President of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE).

He also established Axon Instruments, a supplier of electronic and robotic instruments and software for use in cellular neuroscience, genomics and drug discovery.

The Conversation asked Dr Finkel about his views on topics ranging from “techno-optimism” to renewable energy to encouraging young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Q1. You have a background in engineering, and you’ve said that you approach the world with a particular mindset. So what is the mindset of an engineer?

The mindset of an engineer is fundamentally based on an optimism that things can be done better than they have been done in the past. And a level of confidence that I, as an engineer, can contribute to designing better solutions to meet the needs of individuals or society who might benefit from the products that I can contribute.

So I think, to be an engineer, one has to have a belief in one’s own ability to create new and better products and solutions for society.

That’s the beginning of the mindset. Once one gets into the professional practice of engineering, then I think the engineering process is one that can be used in non-engineering aspects of life as well.

As an engineer, my method has been to approach problem solving by first identifying the problem. That sounds like a trite comment, but it’s extremely important, because if you don’t identify the right problem you spend your time doing something irrelevant.

And then deeply analyse the problem. Analyse the impact, causes and nature of the problem, what other people have done about the problem.

Then the fun stuff begins with the third step, which is developing a prototype. You take what you know from your analysis of the problem and see if you can come up with a quick and dirty solution that addresses as much of the problem as you would hope.

But of course prototypes never do that perfectly, so the fourth step is to test the prototype. The fifth step is iterating the third and fourth: prototype, test, prototype, test, as you develop it into a much more powerful and stable design.

The final step is to deliver the solution. Just finishing it and not actually carrying it over the fence into the community means that the effort you have put in is completely wasted.

And what I have found in life is that it applies to many things. If you’re going to set up a new business, you really have to go through the same kind of multi-step process.

So I find that engineering approach to be useful in most things that I have to apply myself to on a day to day basis.

Q2. You have also described yourself as a “techno-optimist”. Can you tell us what that means?

It means that I believe in the innovative potential of humanity as a whole. I think the thing that distinguishes us from any other species is that we are constantly coming up with new ideas and translating those new ideas into practice. And that innovative potential often is based on using technology to drive progress.

So I am optimistic that we can continue to drive forward progress that will deliver ever better prosperity for us.

Some people will say that many of the problems we have are due to technology. One example is carbon emissions. Of course they are due to technology. But our society depends on energy.

Well, we are not going to stop the problem of carbon emissions by eliminating energy. Energy is the most important thing that enables us to run and preserve our societies.

So we have to develop new technology that will enable us to have the energy we actually need without the side-effect of carbon dioxide emissions. So that’s where the “techno” part of techno-optimist comes into it.

Q3. Many people have also raised the prospect of automation taking up a lot of jobs. Are you concerned about automation and unemployment?

I am absolutely concerned but I have confidence that the problem of permanent structural unemployment might never eventuate.

As they say, prediction is very difficult especially if it’s about the future. So trying to guess what is going to happen is hard.

If you go back to historical precedents, this kind of concern about the impact of automation on jobs and automation causing permanent loss of jobs has been around for 250 years.

Whether it’s true or not, there is the myth of young Ned Ludd back in 1780, picking up a sledge hammer to destroy the automated stocking making machine and hence the word “luddite”. Right from the beginning they were concerned about losing their jobs to the automated stocking machine.

John Maynard Keynes back in the 1930s wrote about the impact of automation on jobs, and his concern that there could be a permanent impact. But then he qualified it by saying that human innovation is likely to create new jobs to replace those jobs that are lost.

In the 1960s [US] president Lyndon Johnson was so concerned about permanent loss of jobs that he convened a special national commission to look into what to do. In the three years that commission was meeting, the economy recovered, employment improved and they just disbanded the commission.

Come to more present dates, a couple of MIT economists, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, published a book in 2011 where they analysed productivity and jobs growth and saw a difference in the pattern of linkage between productivity increase and jobs growth, and concluded that we were entering an age of permanent increasing unemployment driven by automation.

At the time they made that prediction, unemployment in America was 9%. Now it’s down to 5.5%. So in the last five years since they made their prediction they’ve been completely wrong.

Why? Because new jobs are created. Things happen that you haven’t thought about.

If you look at the predictions that people make about jobs over the next 15 or 20 years, one of the common ones that has come out of a number of studies from Oxford University, from PwC, from CEDA and NICTA in Australia tend to all come to the same conclusion: that over the next 15 to 20 years 40% of the jobs we have today will disappear.

But none say we will have a 40% increase in unemployment. What they say is that there will be many new jobs created, and 75% of those new jobs that are created as it happens, they predict, will require science and technology and mathematics skills.

As a nation we have to do what we can to make sure there will be new jobs, and the way you do that is by constantly innovating – taking the new ideas that have been generated and turning them into opportunities.

Q4. You have long been a proponent of renewable energy. Can you paint a picture of what a renewable energy mix might look like in the next decade or so. Particularly one that can begin to cater for baseload power.

It’s very difficult in the time frame of a decade, but is achievable in a longer time frame. The practical renewable energies in Australia are solar, wind and hydroelectricity. The contribution of renewable energy in total in Australia to electricity is modest, around 13.5%, and the majority of that is still by far hydroelectricity.

What we’ve got in hydro is unlikely to change in the next 20 or 30 years, so the growth potential is in solar and wind. But despite ten years of pretty active development, they only represent a very small percentage of our electricity, and electricity itself only represents around a quarter of our total energy usage.

So in terms of our carbon dioxide emissions to date, solar and wind are helping, but it’s not substantial. So where is the opportunity going forward?

It’s to build a lot more solar and a lot more wind. That means we then have to solve the problem of intermittency, and that is difficult.

There is a lot of optimism, which I share, about the potential for lithium-ion batteries to be made in massive quantities. While a number of companies have committed to doing that, the one that’s getting the most visibility is Tesla, which is building a “giga-factory” to pump out millions of substantial domestic battery storage units per year.

Another way of storing the electricity from the intermittent solar and wind sources for conversion back into electricity is to use hydrogen. Hydrogen is very attractive because it’s a clean process, it’s relatively simple, it’s easily stored and it’s transportable.

The trouble is that it’s not very efficient. You can take solar electricity, use that to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, capture the hydrogen and then when you need it, use fuel cells to convert the hydrogen back to electricity.

Once you have gone through that process of regenerating the electricity you only get about 35% back with today’s best technologies. So that means about two thirds has been lost. So there is a lot of technology development that needs to be undertaken to make hydrogen extremely attractive.

Q5. Do you think nuclear should be a part of Australia’s energy mix at some point in the future?

I think that it should be considered.

I’m not an actual advocate of building nuclear electricity, which some people have said that I am. I am somebody who feels we should have an open debate about its potential to contribute.

Whether that contribution is ten or 20 years from now is part of the debate. But at the moment, electricity demand in Australia is somewhat flat and so we don’t have any immediate shortages. But if growth is strong and if we are determined to approach a zero emissions supply as part of our commitment to meeting the Paris accord, then we have to use zero emissions technologies.

I don’t think it’s practical to say “choose a technology” rather than “choose an ambition”. The ambition should be zero emission technology, and within that there are many technologies. The high capacity ones are solar, wind, hydro and nuclear. Other ones that get talked about often, such as waves and tidal, have not proved to be practical.

So the ones you can choose from that can deliver large quantities of zero emissions electricity are solar and wind with storage, hydro and nuclear. But whether or not we should build nuclear depends not only on whether the technology can deliver zero emissions electricity, but also on the economics and the societal acceptance. Ultimately that is very much a decision for politicians.

Q6. You spoke about the importance of STEM and STEM workers to the future prosperity of Australia. What would you say to a young person who is considering their career prospects, and how would you encourage them to pursue a career in STEM?

I would first want to encourage their interest in STEM, beyond just the career aspect.

One of the things I’ve been very committed to in the last ten years is developing a variety of programs that build on the concept of the relevance of science in our society to get the kids interested and then teach them the fundamentals of physics and chemistry and maths that they need.

For kids who are actually interested in doing science, technology, engineering or mathematics, I would say go for it because there are increasing prospects of jobs over coming decades in STEM careers.

One thing they absolutely have to keep in mind is that it’s highly unlikely over the next 40 years of their working career they will be staying in one job, or two jobs or three jobs.

By doing a science or engineering degree, they are going to learn a way of thinking and understanding of the world around them that I think will serve them very well, whether they go into science or business or politics or the public service, so they should follow their interests.

Q7. How do you see the role of the Chief Scientist and what would success look like, in that role?

My primary role is to advise the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, and other Ministers where relevant, on issues related to science in our society and where the opportunities are.

But the role is more than just science, because just doing the research and producing research outcomes without actually taking advantage of those outcomes is short sighted.

An ever increasing part of the role of the Chief Scientist is to give consideration to the innovation process that will help us as a society, take those research outcomes and turn them into proven technologies that can be delivered to the marketplace for either societal benefits or commercial benefits.

It’s not that everything we do in the science and technology fields has to turn into a commercial benefit. Many times the end user will be a government department or it might be something that has been developed for an improved process for hospitals, but we have to reap the benefit through innovation of the work that we have put into doing first class science.The Conversation

Tim Dean, Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.