On Wednesday, November 9 the World Bank and Global Financial Integrity co-hosted an event at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC titled, “Amplifying Integrity in the Fight Against Systemic Corruption.” Ten distinguished scholars from think tanks, non-profits and international institutions were invited to participate in two panel discussions on the evolution of global illicit financial flows.
Global Financial Integrity (GFI) President Raymond Baker provided opening remarks at the event, claiming that “the original tenets of capitalism as we know them have been radically altered,” and that the rebalancing of the democratic capitalist system sits alongside climate change as one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. A 2015 GFI report found that between 2004 and 2013, developing and emerging economies lost $7.8 trillion, breaching the $1 trillion mark as early as 2011.
This so-called “shadow financial system” has been growing steadily, increasing an average of 6.5 percent annually and vastly outpacing global GDP growth. Tax havens, fake foundations and disguised corporations – numbering in the millions – have proliferated, and most of them operate from within the United States. As the world becomes more globalized and interconnected, we are witnessing the systemic merging of corruption between public and private institutions at unprecedented levels. If we are to “curtail corruption and build a more equitable and stable world,” said Baker, “we must change the system and get rid of these shadows.”
But changing the system first means acknowledging the magnitude of the problem. Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that only recently has global corruption received the proper attention it deserves. In her previous capacities as a journalist for NPR and special assistant to former US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Chayes maintained that issues of security and defense have traditionally dominated the global agenda.
While they still do, public concerns about corruption have amplified, evidenced by a new 2016 poll published by Chapman University that showed corruption of government officials was America’s biggest fear – besting the next biggest concern, a terrorist attack, by nearly 20 percentage points. The newfound attention to the issue might be attributed to a realization that corruption and terrorism are closely intertwined. “Illicit financial flows are the lifeblood of terrorism and corruption,” warned Frank Vogl, co-founder and former chairman of Transparency International.
Deborah Wetzel, a senior director at the World Bank Group, argued that the advancement of big data has opened new frontiers for the global community in its fight to eliminate corruption. While controversial, large data dumps into the public domain by organizations such as WikiLeaks have exposed massive amounts of fraud and corruption worldwide at levels we did not previously believe possible. Just this year the Panama Papers investigation simultaneously showed the pervasiveness of global “bribery, arms deals, tax evasion, financial fraud, and drug trafficking,” as well as how truth-tellers and civil society activists have been starting to cooperate to expose and condemn these ongoing practices.
In response to these revelations, there has been “spectacular rhetoric,” but no legitimate political will or action from high-level officials or public and private organizations to do what is necessary to quash this global pandemic. Just this past summer there were at least two international summits on the topic of anti-corruption and global financial integrity initiatives: first, the May 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit in London, England and the G-7 Summit in Ise-Shima, Japan. Though raising awareness and making commitments to change are laudable, effecting true change on this scale can be logistically complex and politically suicidal.
Political figures are often unwilling to enforce the severe measures required for genuine global reform. In the United States, for example, “revolving door” loopholes allow former financial regulators to find employment within the institutions they previously monitored, and vice versa. Those brave enough to “shock the system” with sweeping reforms risk losing political office. On November 8, Indian President Narendra Modi banned the country’s largest currency bill in a never-before-seen effort to gut rampant corruption. Since then, there has been widespread upheaval and confusion among the public, given the society’s overdependence on cash. The policy will likely deal a major blow to illicit networks in the medium to long term, but it is yet to be seen whether the public will accept the wait required to see true change.
Progress toward eliminating these illicit networks requires an understanding that each case of corruption or fraud is distinct; there is no “catch-all” solution. Sean Hagan, general counsel and director of the legal department at the International Monetary Fund, argued that the biggest challenge is creating strong institutions with integrity. “Since you can’t put all wrongdoers in jail, you must create a culture of values that’s perceived as competent and independent,” because without it, investment environments are tainted and undermined, which leads to a distrust of institutions, and possibly civil strife and political instability.
Frank Vogl suggested that we must protect whistleblowers and journalists who play an integral role in keeping various institutions accountable, so that we can continue to work toward achieving the “culture of values” Hagan spoke of. It has become progressively more difficult to do so, however, since governments have been hostile to these individuals. Journalists in countries like Russia and Syria risk their lives to tell the news. In China there is virtually no press freedom. And just this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized for cracking down on journalists critical of his administration. The Obama administration has not been especially receptive of whistleblowers, and the incoming Trump administration may be even more hostile.
The panelists agreed that the path ahead is formidable, but that acknowledging the issue of global illicit networks and their influence is a good first step. Vogl argued that we must now move beyond rhetoric and toward action, offering up an eight-point plan that included some of the following suggestions: prosecuting enablers and changing laws accordingly; adopting more severe sanctions on banks strong enough to actually deter wrongdoing; making ownership information more transparent; adopting stronger enforcement of IMF regulations; and encouraging strengthened partnerships among civil society organizations working to raise awareness about these issues.
Jabria Howington contributed to this report.