Sarah Chayes’ recent book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, makes a powerful case connecting severe corruption to a variety of security crises currently plaguing the world, from the expansion of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq to the Arab Spring Revolutions. At a time when some anti-corruption thought leaders are arguing that freedom from corruption should be a basic human right and others are advocating for the creation of an international anti-corruption court, Chayes’ book adds another dimension, by using corruption as a lens through which to understand the root causes of many of today’s security challenges. Chayes is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law and South Asia Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She lived for a decade in Afghanistan, reporting the fall of the Taliban for NPR, staying on as an entrepreneur who founded a manufacturing cooperative in the former Taliban stronghold, and working as a special adviser to the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Chayes spoke to CIPE’s Value Chain Lead Frank Brown about her work studying corruption and security.

How would you describe the impact of your book in anti-corruption circles worldwide? Are you surprised by the reaction in any way?

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Her work explores how severe corruption can help prompt such crises as terrorism, revolutions and their violent aftermaths, and environmental degradation.
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The response within anti-corruption circles could not be more positive. In both style and content, “Thieves” is an unusual – and I hope gripping – take on the topic, and so has perhaps been a refreshing addition to the debate for many who have worked in this field for some time.

More broadly, the book appeared at a – sadly – propitious moment, as the crises in Ukraine and Iraq were forcing increased focus on the corruption issue, and in particular in a security context. So I have gotten more outreach from government and the private sector than ever before, and from unexpected quarters.

However, I continue to be startled that elements of the argument that seem so obvious to me are still facing stiff headwinds inside government. In particular, the link between corruption and violent extremism. While the U.S. government has been emphasizing corruption with respect to, say, Ukraine, as soon as there is a whiff of terrorism in the air the instinct is to support and facilitate the corrupt government — whose practices are often fueling the terrorists’ recruiting drives. Examples include close collaborations with the governments of Algeria, Bahrain, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and so on.

Another obvious issue that seems hard for many government – and non-profit – practitioners to metabolize is that humanitarian and development assistance represents a significant revenue stream for corrupt elites. The Nigerians have an expression for the connected implementing partners that capture such a significant portion of development assistance: GONGOs, for “government-organized non-government organizations.”

Much more thought needs to be devoted to who one’s implementing partners are, whether the “development” activity is in fact a significant revenue stream reinforcing an acutely corrupt government, and if so, whether the benefits truly outweigh the costs to the host-country population. These are lessons that were painfully learned by the development community in Africa in the 1990s, but I’m afraid they have been unlearned since then.

Finally, there are a few questions that I keep getting asked, and that surprise me every time I hear them. One is whether corruption isn’t just “part of the culture” in the countries I’m discussing. What’s interesting is I only get that query from Westerners. I have never had an Egyptian or a Nigerian tell me “Sarah, you’re really making too big a deal of this corruption stuff. It’s your Western bias. We don’t mind it, it is part of our culture.” On the contrary, in every one of the countries I’ve studied, people are unanimous and emphatic that corruption is one of the principal problems holding their country back and fueling violent conflict.

A second question I often encounter is whether the acute corruption I describe isn’t just a normal phase in countries’ development.  The West went through that phase in the 16th and 17th centuries, goes this argument, and perhaps these countries are just passing through this normal stage now. The problem with that thesis is that people I interview invariably see the current excess of corruption as a regression from an earlier era of more rules-based governance and better distribution of public goods. In the U.S., too, we have experienced ebbs and flows in public corruption, the Gilded Age being a bad period, for example, which inspired the reform-minded Progressive Movement. We may be in another bad period now.

CIPE takes an approach to anti-corruption that is grounded in private sector solutions. In your experience looking at market economies, as a business evolves and integrates into global markets does it become less and less tolerant of the long-term instability represented by endemic corruption?

Unfortunately, this dynamic rarely has the chance to function in the contexts I’ve been studying. The private sector that gets integrated into global markets usually is part of the kleptocratic network(s).

Even in a country like Ben Ali’s Tunisia, which projected such a good image to international markets that it scored a very honorable middle-of-the-pack rating on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Indices in the years preceding the Arab Spring, no one could be involved in outward-facing business, be it the tourism industry, automobiles, banks, or even the country’s famed dates, if he/she was not wired in to the Ben Ali Network, or at least paying a cut.

These networks are horizontally integrated to a remarkable degree. They include actors that we in the West usually consider licit – in government and the private sector (lucrative economic activities, financial institutions, public works contractors, connected NGOs, etc.) – and those the West usually considers illicit – criminals (traffickers in drugs, weapons, people, restricted goods of all kinds, money laundering, guns for hire, etc.), and terrorists.

So unfortunately, the bright line we tend to draw between public and private sectors is not so clear in these environments.

Consequently, like donor agencies, Western investors and potential enablers (e.g. banks) also need to think much harder about who they’re doing business with, and perhaps expand their notions of corporate social responsibility to encompass potential responsibility for reinforcing kleptocratic governments, and thus in the security crises that often ensue.

One of the central points of your book is that an overly corrupt government can alienate its populace to the point of self-destruction. In what countries do you see this process taking place now and what are the potential consequences?

The obvious ones include Afghanistan and Iraq. Nigeria largely saved itself from the brink through remarkable elections this spring, which brought a well-known anti-corruption hardliner to power. Other countries that worry me include such U.S. allies as Algeria, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Egypt is fighting a virulent insurgency that no one hears much about. In these countries, the risks include a durable extremist threat, and eventually implosion, with significant regional repercussions.

I also think some of the countries on the edges of Europe, such as Romania and Bulgaria or the Balkan countries, may pose unexpected problems, potentially serving as significant hubs for transnational organized crime.

Finally, it is worth paying attention to the remarkable – and so far very constructive – mass protests that are spreading across Latin America (Brazil, Chile, Guatemala) and even Armenia and Moldova. It’s really a second wave of anti-corruption uprisings after the Arab Spring, but which is attracting far less attention. With some concerted encouragement from the West, these citizens, together with public-spirited officials often from the judicial branch, may be able to force significant reforms. That would be far preferable to frustration and indignation driving the protests in more extreme directions.

In the years you spent researching and writing your book, did your view of humanity change in any way?

I certainly was not aware of the lengths some public officials will go to fill their pockets, or their utter shamelessness.

Nor was I really conscious of the degree to which money has come to trump other human ideals and values in recent years, becoming the universal yardstick against which almost everyone measures his or her worth – in all senses of that word. I am much more aware of how wasteful, destructive, and mortally dangerous that ethos and its implications are.

On the other hand, I am increasingly struck by how alike most humans are in their basic values and aspirations, once you get under the exotic differences on the surface. Especially when it comes to matters of justice.

This interview was originally published by the Center for International Private Enterprise.