Since our last strategy in 2016, many things have changed for CiFAR, in the fight against cross-border corruption and for accountable and transparent asset recovery. When CiFAR was founded the issue of illicit financial flows and of asset recovery was largely unknown outside of specialist circles amongst government, civil society organisations and academia, which was reflected in our previous strategy which focussed on building skills and awareness.
Over the past four years, on the global level, the issue of stolen assets has become much more understood among the public and the structures that enable it have become widely known. The Panama and Paradise Papers in particular both exposed the public to the realities of illicit financial flows in a way hitherto unknown and led to concrete change in how governments respond to dark money, with secrecy rules around beneficial ownership, banking and tax being increasingly challenged in richer countries. It has also seen greater engagement from governments in the Global South in the debates, with Nigeria in particular leading efforts to push for greater efforts from the North for more transparency and to return stolen assets.
The number of asset recovery cases has increased, as well as the number of returns, and new tools to address grand corruption and asset recovery have grown in importance and been introduced. More journalists and CSOs are engaged in the issue of asset recovery than ever before and we have seen greater cooperation amongst and between these groups, although still with a focus on the Global North.
2016-2019 were also CiFAR’s first four years of operation. In that time, we have experienced positive and sustained growth and have built ourselves from scratch to an organisation that is known and contacted by policy makers and CSOs and engages in global debates on asset recovery.
Our 2020-2023 strategy reflects these changes. Focussing as before on expanding the actors engaged in asset recovery, but also pushing forward evidence-based global debates on how asset recovery functions. It also explicitly focuses on CiFAR’s own growth and development as an organisation.
This new strategy is organised over three results areas. The first – Global Priorities – aims to improve civil society’s understanding of how asset recovery is functioning currently, explore new and under-considered options for the recovery of stolen assets, and work with civil society to advocate for their adoption. The second – Strengthening civil society – builds on our work done to date and aims to continue improving the capacity of non-state actors to work across borders on asset recovery, both on cases and as a tool for broader societal reform. The third – CiFAR as a strong actor – looks internally and aims to strengthen our organisation, focussing on our capacity to be an expert, agile actor able to engage sustainably on the issue and to respond to the needs of others working on cases on the ground.
While several measures aimed at preventing the theft of public assets have been in place for many years and while criminal proceedings remain the default for recovering any money hidden overseas, the past four years have seen a growth in prominence of new ways to combat illicit financial flows. This has included big pushes on beneficial ownership and generally on fighting financial secrecy, sanctions, and the use of non-conviction-based forfeiture of ill-gotten gains, alongside questions over the utility of traditional methods. Lacking in many of these discussions and policy tendencies though are solid, empirical reasons for favouring certain tools over others. These tools have also only made progress to a certain extent, with issues around transparency and accountability remaining as strong as ever.
This results area transcends country cases and represents our commitment to push the agenda on asset recovery globally – developing the evidence around and advocating for measures that really work to tackle cross-border corruption and asset recovery. These areas represent not only priorities, but also where we have added value as a specialised civil society actor focussing on asset recovery. A key part of this result area is considering both the traditional and the new tools and situating them within the challenging political contexts within which asset recovery is carried out. This result area is also about considering the interlinks between asset recovery and the bigger political issues of transparency, accountability and good governance globally and nationally.
Within the field of asset recovery, traditional, criminal justice approaches are frequently being replaced by calls for states to adopt and use new, non-traditional tools to make case-work more effective and faster. While typically discussion of alternative tools was focussed around non-conviction-based forfeiture laws, there has been a rapid advance in the past four years of other mechanisms, including reconciliation agreements, unexplained wealth orders, and sanctions. Several of these tools show promise, however knowledge gaps exist in several areas, both in our understanding of their effectivity as a tool for asset recovery and in how they contribute positively or negatively to building transparency and accountability more broadly.
CiFAR’s work on sanctions has been an important step in developing this knowledge. Our priority in the coming four years will be to take this further and develop a better understanding of non-traditional tools more broadly, their prevalence and effectivity in actually combatting cross-border corruption, facilitating asset recovery and contributing to systemic change in both countries of origin and financial centres.
This work will be in part evaluative, and in part through investigating the effect of these tools in practice. Within this we will also seek to explore new ideas for tools that could make processes both more effective and more transparent and accountable.
Related to the Priority Area 1, a growing challenge in international asset recovery cases are returns of stolen assets to countries where corrupt regimes are still in power or where there is little to no possibility of citizen oversight of returned assets. This brings into tension the duty to return on the part of the states holding the assets and the duty to return responsibly. Countries such as Libya and Yemen, with ongoing hostilities, or Equatorial Guinea or Uzbekistan, with largely unchanged regimes, are current examples where these tensions are strongly in play. The result of this has seen returns stalled indefinitely or returning governments compromising responsible return principles. It is likely that these issues will become more common, in the coming years, as cases continue to grow.
Our priority in the next four years will be to develop new understandings of possibilities and creative solutions to return stolen assets to hostile environments in a way that is transparent, accountable and benefits the people from whom the assets were stolen. It particular it will look at ways returns can contribute to building strong governance systems in both countries of origin and financial centres. We will also investigate return processes that are underway to hostile environments to expose the challenges and risks that these returns entail.
The traditional approach to recovery has focussed on criminal proceedings through strong anti-corruption laws and facilitated by solid asset recovery laws. Consequentially, introducing asset recovery laws has been an ask of anti-corruption civil society in many countries, particularly in recent years in the Global South. Little though has been done to understand the link between asset recovery laws and actual recovery, and between asset recovery laws and citizen oversight of their governments more broadly.
Our priority in this area will be to work with our partner organisations to evaluate, design and advocate for strong laws that both prevent public asset theft and ensure transparent and accountable returns. It will also be to lead and support investigations by investigative journalists and CSOs into compliance with existing laws, including in particularly sanctions. Further it will promote compliance with existing laws, through expanding our EU Sanctions Watch work.
Despite increased attention over the past four years, citizens and civil society are still largely in the dark about asset recovery in almost all countries. This ranges from the status of ongoing cases around the world, to the processes being used to reclaim stolen assets, and the numbers and actors involved in cases. While some countries have made efforts to increase transparency to a degree and do cooperate with civil society, any information provided is often fragmented and not timely to interventions by civil society, particularly those in the Global South.
Our priority in this area will be to identify and publicise more information on asset recovery cases in a way that is accessible for everyone. This will include further developing our country profiles, collating information on cases and figures where possible, advocating for governments to release more data, and by providing clear explanations of terminology and processes so that everyone can be engaged in debates on asset recovery.
Strengthening civil society
Despite the emergence of more civil society actors in the field of asset recovery, gaps still exist in civil society knowledge. Even where an understanding of the process of asset recovery is strong, organisations that work on this topic as a part of broader anti-corruption, democracy or human rights work are still likely to need support to understand where and when certain actions should be taken and in developing advocacy and campaigning strategies that build on asset recovery for systemic transparency and accountability reforms. Further, the nature of case-based asset recovery work means that for many civic actors, they will only start working on asset recovery for the first time when a major case breaks, meaning they will also need support to build connections in other countries.
This results area directly builds on the work of our 2016-2019 strategy and aims to ensure an even stronger, more connected and diverse range of civil society actors engaged on the issue of asset recovery globally, with a particular emphasis on the Global South. Activities within this results area focus on capacity and strategy building, networking and on the inclusion of more diverse voices from civil society in global debates.
Lack of capacity is still the major issue for greater involvement of civil society in engaging on asset recovery, particularly those from the Global South for whom a major case may be the first time they work on the topic. While more organisations have become involved in the issue in the last four years, numbers are still too few relative to the size of the issue. There are also large knowledge gaps in several civic actors, particularly in understanding how and when to advocate for government action on individual cases and in how to use asset recovery for systemic change.
Our 2020-2023 priority in this area will be to carry out more capacity building in the Global South for NGOs that need it, continue to work to train investigative journalists to work on asset recovery, and support cross-border strategizing, advocacy and campaigns on cases and on our Global Priorities. We will also seek to build stronger links between non-state actors and law enforcement, so that the link to effective prosecution and recovery becomes stronger and focus on using asset recovery to transform governance in the countries of origin and destination. Security of activists is a major issue when working on this topic and will be built into all our capacity building work.
The past four years have seen civil society organisations come together for the Global Forum for Asset Recovery and other international conferences and events, as well as part of case-specific advocacy groups. It has also seen us lead a coordinated effort to develop Global CSO Principles and has also seen the unparalleled coordination of investigative journalists in exposing illicit financial flows, including mechanisms used by the corrupt to hide their money.
Despite this, there are still barriers to cooperation, particularly between civil society organisations, where there is still a big over-representation of civil society from financial centres in events and in coordination groups. There are also still too often CSOs working on the same case from two different jurisdictions without cooperating with each other, potentially undermining any gains they could make by acting cooperatively.
Our priority will be to continue our work to convene civil society across borders on asset recovery, including through supporting civil society actors to build their networks through meetings and events and through expanding our databases of engaged actors and individuals. We will particularly focus on supporting civil society from the Global South and empowering their voices at the global level.
CiFAR as a strong actor
Since 2016 CiFAR has grown from founding to an organisation well-respected within the asset recovery and anti-corruption fields and able to secure funding to implement projects that fulfil our strategy and mission. We have also professionalised several of our internal systems and developed policies and procedures for the implementation of our work that meet international best practice. Nevertheless, we still face challenges in securing longer term funding and in supporting our core work and have work to do to strengthen our internal governance system as we continue to grow. We also need to understand better how we can respond dynamically to changing conditions and progressing case situations within the framework of project-based work and improve the visibility of our research and tools so that they better reach those who can use the.
As such, our focus over the next four years will also be to strengthen CiFAR’s ability to be an expert, agile actor able to engage sustainably on asset recovery and to respond to the needs of others working on cases on the ground.
Over the course of our first strategy and in establishing CiFAR, we founded our board and created an advisory board made up of five experts from the civil society, government and academic fields. We also set up an office and built up the structure of the internal organisation, establishing policies on procurement, staff, hiring, conflict of interest and travel. We further established a whistleblower and corruption focal point outside of the CiFAR structure and enabled it to hold the board and staff to account through the annual membership meeting.
Many of these policies and procedures are solid for now but will need reflection and possible revision during the lifetime of this strategy. In particular we will carry out a review of internal governance system, focussing on the roles of the Board and Advisory Board, with a view to increasing independence and accountability within the structures of CiFAR and in our interactions with the outside world. We will also seek to make as many of our processes and procedures as public as possible, as well as our funding, to continue to ensure that we are as transparent ourselves as we demand from others.
Our funding has grown over the past four years and we have a base of donors with whom we have now cooperated with on several projects. Further, we have built visibility for ourselves and the issues we work on through speaking at prominent international conferences, our website, press releases and news stories about us. Nevertheless, as a newer organisation, we still lack structural funding that can both support the aspects of our work, such as ad hoc CSO support, communicating our messages, non-project relevant research and, indeed fundraising itself, that is not covered by projects, and is longer term. Our visibility also requires strengthening to ensure that our work better reaches our target audiences and that we have plans in place for communicating each aspect of our work.
Our priorities over the coming strategy will be to ensure that we are growing sustainably through building our base of donors and increasing our funding levels to be able to cover all our work areas effectively, including by increasing our staffing capacity and seeking longer-term and non-project based funding. We will also work to improve our visibility through developing our communications strategy, with a focus on reaching relevant audiences with our messages and on being seen more often as a focal point for our area of expertise.