There is an old joke about a drunkard searching for his keys under a streetlight. A passerby stops to help. After a few minutes of failing to find them, he asks the drunkard if he is sure that this is where he lost them. “No,” the drunkard replies, “but it’s dark everywhere else.”
That is how humans approach many daunting tasks, not least of them writing about corruption. We know that it’s a problem, we know that it’s serious, but we are reduced to hunting for evidence in the light cast by the few countries willing and able to prosecute the crime. Darkness stretches all around: we are missing out on a whole world of evidence that remains completely obscure.
In a speech he delivered in 1996, James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, likened corruption to cancer. “Corruption diverts resources from the poor to the rich, increases the cost of running businesses, distorts public expenditures, and deters foreign investors,” Wolfensohn explained. It was a new, post–Cold War world, and he wanted to spearhead a push for cleanliness and corporate accountability now that it was no longer acceptable to ignore kleptocracy for reasons of geopolitical expediency. Two years later, Wolfensohn’s counterpart at the International Monetary Fund, the economist Michel Camdessus, put a figure on the phenomenon: he estimated that between two and five percent of global money flows had criminal origins.
Anything involving that much money and doing that much damage to so many people should clearly become a public policy priority as well as a focus of detailed research. Activists, authorities, and journalists need data on the scope, dynamics, and causes of the problem to figure out how best to fight it. And yet, despite efforts by Wolfensohn, Camdessus, and others to sound the alarm, such clarity has remained elusive. Some additional light has been cast on the issue over the past two decades, mostly by legal proceedings brought under U.S. and British antibribery
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