Three things I learned from IACC

Last week’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Washington DC was a packed programme of plenary sessions, panel discussions, workshops and film screenings – punctuated by coffee breaks to caffeinate and connect, and lunches to refuel while continuing the conversations. Stepping back from the buzz of the week’s activities, here are three takeaways from my first time attending the IACC.

Look beyond the big names

First, the real value of the IACC lies not in the big names it draws, but in the breadth of experience and expertise that it brings together. This is not to downplay the agenda-setting addresses by influential figures like US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the inspiring speeches from impressive leaders like Moldovan President Maia Sandu, or the memorable fireside chat that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hosted with anti-corruption champions working against the odds in Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Serbia. Rather, it is to recognise the rich diversity of perspectives represented by the civil society activists, academics, government officials and journalists at the IACC, and the benefits of tapping into their hard-won experience to collaboratively tackle our shared challenges. 

For example, a panel discussion on the role of western enablers in global corruption began by exploring the impact of this enabling in high-profile cases in Equatorial Guinea and Angola, before turning to consider private sector perspectives and civil society priorities for policy change in key enabling jurisdictions like the UK. It is this kind of dynamic exchange that is most conducive to collective problem-solving.

Come with a strategy…

Second, making the most of the IACC requires proactive and strategic engagement rather than exhaustive but passive consumption of what is on offer. Particularly for newcomers to the IACC, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the conference, with thousands of participants spread across multiple events that run in parallel sessions. The relentless schedule, with its range of equally good but clashing events, can leave one scrambling from session to session. 

Rather than spreading oneself too thinly, however, there is value in selecting fewer sessions to attend but engaging more proactively in the discussion. I was fortunate to speak at an event about scaling up enforcement efforts against grand corruption, benefitting from close engagement with fellow panellists as well as the audience. This kickstarted many interesting conversations that developed through the week, and similar opportunities can also be created by asking questions from the floor and engaging proactively with presenters and other participants after sessions.

… but leave room for serendipity 

Third, many of the most stimulating exchanges happen on the margins of the IACC rather than taking centre-stage at the conference. After being confined to virtual engagement during the covid-19 pandemic, this year’s in-person gathering of the global anti-corruption community generated a palpable energy and brought an intensive focus to discussions. Participants embraced the opportunity to share perspectives in a more organic way, not just in the formal sessions themselves but through spontaneous connections. This was not necessarily through networking of the more deliberate kind, but through chance encounters in the corridors or unplanned introductions. Some of the most rewarding conversations I had at the conference unfolded without any plan or preparation, but were prompted by being present together within the stimulating environment of the IACC. This brought opportunities to forge new connections, as well as to renew and consolidate existing partnerships.

Net zero next time?

This dynamic is admittedly difficult to replicate through online arrangements, but an in-person gathering of the global anti-corruption community also poses a challenge of its own. Bringing together so many people from across the world comes at a cost to the climate crisis. As planning begins for Lithuania to host the IACC in 2024, we need to turn our attention to aligning our gathering with a net zero target. Like the global challenge of corruption, tackling climate change requires us to collaborate with a shared sense of urgency and purpose. As the Washington declaration following the IACC noted, “the key to success is collective action” and “there are no unsurmountable obstacles for this brave and committed anti-corruption community”.

Helen Taylor at IACC
Helen Taylor at the 2022 IACC in Washington DC.