CiFAR at Five

Five years ago, in May 2016 CiFAR was established. At that time, we were a group of three founders, who came together with the idea that more could be done, and more needed to be done, to support civil society to work on one of the most complex, time-consuming and difficult areas of anti-corruption work: the recovery of stolen assets. Two weeks ago, we held an event to mark the first five years of operation and to reflect together with partners on developments we expect to see in asset recovery in the coming decade.

Asset recovery itself is challenging not only because it, in its international form, necessarily spans multiple jurisdictions and often multiple languages and different legal cultures. It requires high levels of cooperation and concentration from officials in these countries to identify and recover any money and other property obtained through corruption.

For civil society, this mission is in some ways even longer and more challenging. We provide essential oversight not only to the process of returning the stolen assets, but also aim to ensure that returned assets are used in a way that is transparent, accountable and strengthens anti-corruption systems. We also expose cases of cross-border corruption and advocate for measures to be put in place that makes it harder for corrupt officials to hide stolen money in the first place.

Over the past five years, CiFAR has been working to support civic actors from across the globe to play that role. This has included through running training and outreach programmes for civil society, supporting investigative journalists to expose new cases of cross-border corruption, and undertaking research and policy work to provide civic actors with an evidence-based backbone for their advocacy.

At the time of founding, our priorities were to support civil society capacity building, networking amongst civic actors and to link up national work into global campaigns to make asset recovery, and its issues, more visible. As part of this, we launched rounds of our Investigate programme, for early-career journalists keen to investigate cross-border corruption and asset recovery, we carried out scoping with civic actors in six countries, we developed EU Sanctions Watch to bring together information on EU corruption sanctions, amongst many other things.

In 2020, we developed and launched our new strategy. 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.

Looking to the next decade of asset recovery, we and our partners speaking at our event identified key challenges that we believe we will face in the years to come. This includes:

  • questions around resourcing for investigations and the potential for countries to be under-resourced in providing support for ongoing multi-country investigations as priorities change;
  • that political will for asset recovery will remain low for some countries in recovering assets and that for others, including donors, priorities may change;
  • that we lack the global structures to discuss tools for recovery and thereby may be entering a period of fragmentation of methods of return;
  • that civil society is under attack in many countries, hampering efforts to investigate and to hold governments accountable;
  • the challenge of money being moved to destinations unwilling to engage in asset recovery at all; and
  • open discussions over what happens to any money that is returned and the role of victims in asset recovery.

These challenges do not indicate that the situation is hopeless, however. These challenges also represent opportunities for civil society to take stronger and more coordinated action on asset recovery.  Understanding the difficulties we may face now also puts us in a better position to address them and to take the lead in advancing transparency and accountability in the process.

The next decade will likely be tough when it comes to asset recovery, but the work will continue to be essential if we are to build back from the pandemic in a way that will be more equitable and just, globally and locally.