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

The wide angle

A basic point of both curiosity and frustration that motivated me to write the book is the difference between rules in the rule-book and what happens in practice. In theory, considering the detailed and exacting international and domestic laws and regulations designed to keep kleptocrats from laundering the proceeds of their corruption abroad, the problem should have been solved.

Yet, year after year, scandal after scandal, the dirty money somehow seems to slip through the net, and corrupt leaders escape accountability. In 2011, the Arab Spring revolutions revealed not just how spectacular the corruption of the former rulers of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia was, but also how much of this wealth they were able to move into major Western financial centres. Current leaders of highly corrupt African and Central Asian countries continue to live well beyond their means, and both they and their suspiciously bountiful assets travel freely. How can the big gap between what ought to be happening (or ought not to be happening) and the reality be explained, and how can the gap be closed or at least narrowed?

As a student of policy and politics, I wanted to know why the promise of a system that looked so good on paper seemed to be so hard to translate into practice. This followed earlier research I had done on tax havens and tax evasion, and anti-money laundering more generally. All these problems epitomize challenges of globalization, whereby states and other actors struggle to impose control on an increasingly borderless financial system.

In terms of answering the big questions, I see the new rules against grand corruption as a product of the end of the Cold War and the failure of development policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union undermined the rationale for the US and other Western countries to prop up thoroughly corrupt but staunchly anti-Communist client regimes. At about the same time, the World Bank and other development institutions had to explain why their policy prescriptions had failed to make poor countries richer. Their response was that corruption had prevented development, and thus that to achieve the latter it was necessary to fight the former.

Although there have been some important successes in the fight against grand corruption, overall the results have been disappointing, for a number of reasons. First, international law enforcement and judicial co-operation across borders is just an inherently difficult process, especially when it comes to complex financial crimes. Second, the bureaucratic incentives faced by prosecutors and police favour simple, quick cases with a high probability of success, whereas major cross-border corruption cases are complex, expensive, and drag on for years or even decades. Finally, many key monitoring and enforcement functions have been delegated to banks and other private intermediaries whose interests are often best served by turning a blind eye to clients with suspicious wealth.