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 addition to explaining where the new system of rules designed to combat foreign kleptocrats’ laundering came from, and the problems with the way it works, I make some suggestions as to how the system could work better. Some of these recommendations are directed to governments, but in general I argue that non-state actors can make the biggest improvements to effectiveness.

Recent progress in the fight against international tax evasion has important complementarities with the campaign against international corruption, but too often these efforts are isolated from each other. As noted, governments have largely delegated financial surveillance and due diligence to the private sector, especially banks, but then have generally failed to supervise and sanction these financial intermediaries, especially outside the United States.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of countering corruption is that the only parties that know about the crime profit from it. Anti-corruption policies often boil down to efforts to counter-acting the profit motive, either by creating punitive disincentives (going to jail for taking a bribe), or through appeals to principle (serving the public good rather than selfish private interests). But I argue that we need to turn the profit motive from an enemy into an ally in the fight against corruption. How might this be done?

Whistle-blowers are one of the main sources by which corruption scandals come to light. These individuals often taken huge risks in telling what they know; they should be rewarded for doing so with a share of the penalties levied. One of the particularly disappointing aspects of the efforts to recover assets stolen by leaders overthrown in the Arab Spring was that governments from states like Egypt not only failed to get their money back, but they also racked up huge legal bills in doing so. Yet it should be possible to hire law firms to do the job on a contingency basis: if they recover stolen assets for the victim government the firm gets to keep a share, but if the effort fails, the law firm bears the entire cost.

Though it is natural to think that only law enforcement can undertake investigations, most of the advanced accounting and legal skills that are needed to follow the money trail are in the private sector. These highly-skilled individuals and the firms they work for are motivated by profit, so the question is how to align incentives so that these capabilities can be fully engaged in the hunt for stolen assets. Those squeamish about the idea of anti-corruption for profit should think harder about the costs of corruption, and our modest record of success so far in addressing this problem. In this struggle, we need all the help we can get.