Sarah Chayes discusses international corruption

Sarah Chayes, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examined the implications of corruption on international security.
Sarah Chayes, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examined the implications of corruption on international security.-Jennifer Mastrianni/Contributing Photographer

Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke on Thursday about the international security threats that result from corruption.

Chayes is a former National Public Radio correspondent who left her job covering the fall of the Taliban in 2001 to start a manufacturing cooperative in southern Afghanistan. She also served as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen.

Her interest in corruption began when she experienced severe corruption in Afghanistan in 2002. While working to rebuild a flattened village, she engaged a local governor in a fight over gravel, over which he had awarded himself a monopoly so he could sell it at inflated prices to Americans. “I didn’t go there to get involved with corruption,” Chayes said, “But you almost couldn’t put your foot out the door without it becoming a big issue.”

Chayes proposed that a majority of the major conflicts in the world today, from Ukraine to ISIS to Nigeria, emerge from environments of extreme corruption. Corruption, she added, is an all-encompassing word that crosses the line between a moral and a material issue. As far as international affairs are concerned, she pointed out three major issues: a significant economic impact, an effect on personal dignity and a public misconception that corruption is a plague on a system when, in reality, for many countries it is the system.

She shared a statistic from Global Financial Integrity, a non-profit that works to stop illicit financial flows. Approximately $1 trillion a year are transferred unlawfully, not including cash, because the data is too limited to calculate. In Afghanistan, $2 billion to $5 billion are lost each year to bribery and corruption, which is significant for economic development.

Corruption is an attack on more than just economics. Chayes told a story of a friend who was punched when he refused to pay the last of many bribes while bringing automobile parts from Pakistan to Kandahar. “A former police officer, a young Afghan man, gets hit,” Chayes said, “How often does that have to happen before somebody wants to hit back?” She considers the corruption that she witnessed in Afghanistan an attack on the people’s sense of pride: for them to witness officers of the law breaking it “contemptuously” caused a deep sense of rage, which led to violence.

Chayes described the sophisticated system of corruption that exists within many of the governments she has studied. “The weaknesses in how the government is operating are deliberate,” she said. “Manpower is deployed in a way that will maximize profits.” While she was working in Kandahar she encountered significantly more government officials than her friends in the east of Afghanistan at the time simply because there was more revenue flowing through Kandahar for police officers, among others, to pocket.

These networks of corruption succeed by capturing various levels of power, from the IRS in Tunisia, where it served as “the enforcement arm of a kleptocratic government” to judiciary branches and police forces. Armies of countries with corruption problems, she said, are infrequently used as weapons of force because the bureaucratic elite simultaneously fear a coup and want to use military funding as their own revenue stream. She gave the “ghost soldiers” of the Iraqi army during the war as an example: The government had soldiers on payroll who didn’t exist, and it pocketed the money.

She pointed to these networks of corruption as motivating factors for religious extremism.

“Think back to the young man who got hit by the cop,” Chayes said. “It happens to him three or four times so he wants to hit the cop. The Taliban hand him a Kalashnikov … and they tell him it’s his religious duty to shoot the cop.”

Religious extremism is, therefore, an outlet for corruption-inspired rage. Chayes suggested that if the United States government and other world powers do not try to understand and reduce the grounds of the argument, “terrorists are just going to keep being minted faster than they can be taken out of circulation by drones.”

Similarly, revolution can emanate from poor treatment under corrupted regimes. The leaderless revolutions of the Arab Spring were novel and significant, according to Chayes, because there was no way for the collectorate network running the government to co-opt its leaders into its system.

Chayes emphasized that she does not believe corruption itself is the sole cause of all the problems in the world. Rather, she proposes that it is a factor that exacerbates all other factors and one that she is concerned with because it receives very little public attention.

Wrapping up, she returned to the United States’ own corruption, which exists on the same spectrum as the countries in the news today. Various parties of men, among them those working on Wall Street, have an inordinate impact on the shape of the country, Chayes proposed, and in this respect the United States might need saving too.