J. C. Sharman


On his book The Despot's Guide to Wealth Management: On the International Campaign against Grand Corruption

Cover Interview of November 19, 2017

In a nutshell

Twenty years ago, if a leader from a country like Nigeria looted billions of dollars from his own country and stashed the money in the United States, the US had no moral or legal duty to do anything about it. Now, however, there is an international, moral, and legal rule prohibiting one country from hosting money stolen by the leader of another country. In response, the book asks three questions. First, why is there a new prohibition on hosting foreign corruption proceeds? Second, how well does this new rule work? Third, given that there is still a lot of this kind of dirty money crossing borders, how could we make this rule more effective?

Most studies of corruption are about how money is taken; this book is about where it ends up. The kind of corruption I am interested in is kleptocracy. Literally, in a ‘rule by thieves,’ leaders and their families take huge sums of money from the countries they rule, often further impoverishing some of the poorest populations in the world. Usually, most of this money does not stay at home. Instead, corrupt rulers either spend or stash their ill-gotten gains in places like London, New York, or Switzerland. The new rules aim to break this cycle of looting, laundering, and under-development by following the money trail, seizing illicit wealth, and trying to return it to the victims.

In The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management, I argue that the new rules to counter kleptocracy potentially represent a huge change. Many, perhaps most, state leaders are corrupt, so the world effort to hold them accountable is a sea-change in the conduct of diplomacy and international politics. But the gnawing doubt is that the rules aren’t really working. Leaders are continuing to steal, and their tainted funds are still ending up in the four host countries that I studied in detail: the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Australia.