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SHOULD THERE BE ETHICAL GUIDELINES FOR GOVERNMENT BORROWING? – THE CASE OF FIFA IN SWITZERLAND

As highlighted in this article, the case of FIFA in Switzerland stressed the importance of ethical guidelines for government borrowing and the need for transparency, accountability, and oversight in the borrowing process. Failure to adhere to these guidelines can lead to ethical problems and undermine public trust in the government.

Earlier this year a range of newspapers were reporting about the world football association FIFA having lent money to various Swiss cantons, cities, and municipalities. Critical voices raised concern about public authorities borrowing money from an organization that has been the protagonist in various scandals – from corruption allegations to reports of dangerous and undignified working conditions in the lead-up to the World Cup in Qatar. However, there seems to be nothing legally wrong with this practice. The question hence becomes: should ethical considerations prohibit governments from borrowing from an organization such as FIFA?


It has become increasingly common for Swiss public authorities with liquidity issues to look for loans on online platforms such as Loanboox and Cosmofunding.[i] Lenders, which also includes private entities, are directly put in touch with borrowers, and no intermediaries are involved. This lending model can be very beneficial for both sides.[ii] The only conditions Swiss authorities are bound by is that the lender must be in Switzerland and provide the loan in the national currency.[iii] These conditions seem to have been fulfilled in the deals made between the world football’s governing body FIFA and various Swiss cantonal and city authorities. In 2022, Lausanne reportedly borrowed CHF 40 million from the association, topped by Neuchâtel with CHF 100 million and Geneva with CHF 150 million.[iv] Many other smaller towns and municipalities were also involved in such deals,[v] but none made the headlines quite as much as the capital city of Bern which allegedly borrowed a total of CHF 1.8 billion from FIFA between 2017 and 2022.[vi]


The city’s Finance Director admitted that no moral questions were considered in the deal, and the focus lay on choosing the cheapest offer. This lack of moral considerations has now come under attack. FIFA is an association plagued by scandal. There have been corruption allegations,[vii] criminal proceedings,[viii] and reports of horrific working conditions in Qatar in building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.[ix] Finance Director of the city of Biel, which has not taken any loans from FIFA, referred to these ethical dilemmas and scandals when expressing relief that the city was not involved in the controversy. Biel’s President said that the public would not approve of a loan from FIFA given ethical and moral considerations and said that such a loan might also violate conflict of interest principles.[x] An additional concern is to what extent FIFA should be subject to banking law or anti-money laundering (AML) rules in relation to this lending activity. The association seems to be allowed to lend without having a banking license[xi] and according to FIFA itself is currently not subject to anti-money laundering legislation.[xii] However, according to regulator Finma, organizations that lend larger sums of money have to become subject to AML law. Law Professor Mark Pieth goes a step further and asks whether, at a certain amount of lending, FIFA should be put under banking law.[xiii]


FIFA has responded to the criticism by saying that the lending/borrowing relationship is highly professional and that the association does not attempt to promote its own interest through these relationships. It further highlighted that most of the money FIFA earns comes from abroad, which is why investing this money in Switzerland is a clear value add for the country.[xiv] Others have said that the loans given by FIFA provide good conditions. The Finance Minister of Neuchâtel cautioned that also banks and other lenders are not free of criticism and that in the case of issuing bonds, the government does not even know who the lenders are.[xv] Also member of parliament Laurent Kurth mentioned that the loans from FIFA are not necessarily more problematic than those from banks, but that for political reasons it might be better to take distance from companies like FIFA.[xvi] In Geneva the government highlighted that the loans from FIFA complied with ethical considerations because the money comes mainly from TV royalties – focusing hence on the origins of the funds instead of the behavior of the association.[xvii]


So, is this just the way public borrowing works? Not if members of Bern’s city parliament Milena Daphinoff and Florence Schmid have their way: the two suggest an ethics code for the city, a number of ethical borrowing rules that the city would have to comply with.[xviii] The social democratic party (SP) and its youth organization JUSO (Young Socialists) have submitted a motion in this regard.[xix] Also in Lausanne and Geneva politicians have suggested or discussed ethical borrowing rules and transparency over the sources of the loans.[xx] The Town Council of Fribourg highlighted however how difficult it would be to put such ethical guidelines into practice, as concerns about certain lenders are news-driven and could emerge months after a loan was made.[xxi]


Surprisingly little guidance exists on ethical government borrowing, particularly if we compare it with recommendations on ethical investment or integrity in public procurement. Most discussions around the morals and ethics of government debt surround the question of how ethical such debt is in the first place, given that taxpayers and in particular future generations will have to repay it, while current generations benefit from the loans. The question about the source of the loans is however rarely discussed. UNCTAD’s Principles on Promoting Responsible Sovereign Lending and Borrowing highlight a few areas where borrowers and lenders can act more responsibly. These include transparency and disclosure. However, the Principles do not mention ethical concerns about the lenders. A code of conduct or ethical rules around government borrowing could cover one or both of the following areas: first, integrity, transparency, and avoidance of conflicts of interest, and second, the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance of the lender. The first area can take inspiration from existing public procurement rules which highlight the importance of making the process transparent and ensuring that no conflicts of interest harm its integrity. This would for example mean that government authorities publish who they borrow money from and declare the absence of conflicts of interest in those borrowing decisions and their subsequent relationships with the lenders. The second area brings increasingly popular ESG considerations into the realm of government borrowing and could ask how lender companies are performing in the three areas – with certain minimum standards needing to be fulfilled. This is where FIFA might not have made the cut, given the allegations around corruption and human rights abuses in particular.


Ultimately the implementation of such rules will likely prove challenging. Government authorities are also bound by requirements to get the best deal in financial terms, which might contradict such ethical considerations. Authorities that wish to implement ethical standards hence need to find the right balance between financial and ethical concerns.


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Suggested citation

Bluebook: Victoria Gronwald, Should there be ethical guidelines for government borrowing? –

The case of FIFA in Switzerland, CORPORATE CRIME OBSERVATORY, (March 8, 2023),


Harvard: Gronwald, V. (2023) ‘Should there be ethical guidelines for government borrowing? –

The case of FIFA in Switzerland’. Corporate Crime Observatory. Available at:


OSCOLA: Victoria Gronwald ‘Should there be ethical guidelines for government borrowing? –

The case of FIFA in Switzerland’, (Corporate Crime Observatory, March 2023),


References

[i] Schwarzenbach, Kaspar (2023): Fifa: “Davon profitieren alle Beteiligten”. Nau.ch, 13/01/2023. URL: https://www.nau.ch/politik/regional/fifa-davon-profitieren-alle-beteiligten-66392716 [accessed 07/03/2023]. [ii] Finews (2022): Fifa vergibt Darlehen an Schweizer Gemeinden. Finews.ch, 20/01/2022. URL: https://www.finews.ch/news/finanzplatz/49720-fifa-darlehen-kredite-gemeinden-schweiz-zuerich-baselland-sandro-fuchs-zhaw [accessed 07/03/2023]. [iii] Gilgen, Urs (2023): Milliarden von der Fifa für Schweizer Gemeinden. SRF, 13/01/2023. URL: https://www.srf.ch/news/wirtschaft/fifa-spielt-bank-milliarden-von-der-fifa-fuer-schweizer-gemeinden [accessed 07/03/2023]. [iv] Swissinfo (2023): Various Swiss cities and cantons borrowed from FIFA. Swissinfo, 30/01/2023. URL: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/politics/various-swiss-cities-and-cantons-borrowed-from-fifa/48243836 [accessed 07/03/2023]. [v] Swissinfo (2023) op.cit.; Gilgen (2023) op.cit. [vi] Gilgen (2023) op.cit. [vii] Gilgen (2023) op.cit. [viii] Swissinfo (2023) op.cit. [ix] Schwarzenbach (2023) op.cit. [x] Schaeren, Lino (2023): Trotz hoher Schulden: Darum hat Biel keine Kredite bei der Fifa aufgenommen. Thuner Tagblatt, 12/02/2023. URL: https://www.thunertagblatt.ch/darum-hat-biel-keine-kredite-bei-der-fifa-aufgenommen-589278881416?idp=OneLog&new_user=no [accessed 07/03/2023]. [xi] Gilgen (2023) op.cit.; Finews (2022) op.cit. [xii]Gilgen (2023) op.cit. [xiii] Ott, Bernhard (2023): 383 Millionen von Fifa geliehen: Die Stadt Bern nutzt die Fifa als Bank. Thuner Tagblatt, 12/01/2023. URL: https://www.thunertagblatt.ch/die-stadt-bern-nutzt-die-fifa-als-bank-421528050542 [accessed 07/03/2023]. [xiv] Schwarzenbach (2023) op.cit. [xv] Swissinfo (2023) op.cit. [xvi] RTN (2023): Neuchâtel a emprunté de l’argent à la FIFA. RTN, 30/01/2023. URL: https://www.rtn.ch/rtn/Actualite/Region/20230130-Neuchatel-a-emprunte-de-l-argent-a-la-FIFA.html [accessed 07/03/2023]. [xvii] Palma, Denis (2023): “La FIFA respecte tous nos critères.” TV Léman Bleu, 30/01/2023. URL: https://www.lemanbleu.ch/fr/Actualites/Geneve/20230130123808-La-FIFA-respecte-tous-nos-criteres.html [accessed 07/03/2023]. [xviii] Swissinfo (2023) op.cit.; Gilgen (2023) op cit. [xix] SP Stadt Bern (2023):Verbindliche Ethik- und Nachhaltigkeitsrichtlinien für Finanzflüsse schaffen. SP Stadt Bern, 26/01/2023. URL: https://www.sp-bern.ch/politik-aktuell/news?tx_t3extblog_blogsystem%5Baction%5D=permalink&tx_t3extblog_blogsystem%5Bcontroller%5D=Post&tx_t3extblog_blogsystem%5BpermalinkPost%5D=4174&cHash=494a96c627d801386ee02d9cfce3ecae [accessed 07/03/2023]. [xx] Rapin, Noriane (2023): Les emprunts d’argent à la FIFA font des vagues à Lausanne. RTS, 01/02/2023. URL: https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/13748925-les-emprunts-dargent-a-la-fifa-font-des-vagues-a-lausanne.html [accessed 07/03/2023]; Palma 2023 op.cit. [xxi] Ville de Fribourg, Questions du Conseil general: Question n 120 – Emprunt à court terme de CHF 10 million à la FIFA. Ville de Fribourg, 15/02/2023. URL: https://www.ville-fribourg.ch/actualites/question-120-emprunt-a-court-terme-de-chf-10-millions-a-la-fifa [accessed 07/03/2023]; Palma 2023 op.cit.


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