The True Cost of Corruption

By Alexandra Sarabia

On Wednesday 24 May, an audience gathered at the Frontline Club for a discussion on corruption and its far-reaching implications. Sarah Chayes and Tom Burgis joined freelance journalist and host of Newshour on the BBC World Service, Owen Bennett-Jones, to talk about their experiences in Africa, Afghanistan and beyond. Chayes is an expert on kleptocracy, anti-corruption and civil-military relations, and is currently senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. Burgis is investigations correspondent at the Financial Times and has worked extensively in Africa.

L-r: Sarah Chayes, Owen Bennett-Jones and Tom Burgis

It has become increasingly clear that corruption exists at every level around the world. Yet there is an ongoing reluctance to understand its complexities and to commit to workable solutions.

Chayes said, “I think there is a bias against this topic … People’s eyes glaze over. It’s not a sexy topic. There is a tendency to dismiss the seriousness of the problem.”

Chayes did not study corruption in depth until she spent time in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Initially working as a journalist and for a number of NGOs, she devoted her time to helping to repair homes that had been damaged by heavy bombing. Chayes recounted how she could not obtain the materials needed, however, because the Governor would award himself stone and sell it at grossly inflated prices to the international military.

Once Chayes left Kandahar she began to realise the extent of endemic corruption, not just in Afghanistan but around the world. She said, “I came to understand that this isn’t a fraying around the edges kind of government system. This kind of corruption network is structured and organised.”

Burgis spoke about his experiences as a correspondent for the Financial Times in South and West Africa. Africa is often described as a paradox of plenty. While the continent is frequently viewed as a symbol of extreme poverty, it is in many regards one of the wealthiest places on earth in terms of its abundance of basic natural resources.

On the subject of corruption in Nigeria, Burgis said: “It happens because the currency gets distorted… It happens because ultimately if you’re a country whose economies depend on shipping out raw resources, the contract or the deal between the rulers and the ruled breaks.”

Corruption is not just a local issue – there are global implications at every level.

Bennett-Jones asked the panellists: “If you take these situations as you described, how much of it ends up at the top of the system in the City of London, Zurich and the banks in New York and therefore will never be resolved because they are just too powerful to deal with?”

Chayes responded: “The countries that are on the positive end on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index are the ones that are exporting corruption services to the corrupt governments.”

Even though the extent of widespread corruption may seem impenetrable, Chayes believes that we can all play an individual role in combatting its influence.

“I have my money in HSBC. I intend to take my money out of HSBC. There’s a role for us as custodians of all of our values to play in piercing some of this hypocrisy.”

More information on The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis is available here.

Click here for more information on Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes.

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