In Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, award winning Financial Times investigations correspondent Tom Burgis explains how kleptocrats are corrupting the world around us, one country at a time. While this issue has traditionally been seen as primarily relevant to the developing world, Burgis identifies the significance of this phenomenon for Western democracies as well. Using a riveting narrative non-fiction style, the book weaves an intricate web of corruption running throughout the entirety of the global economy we know today, including the MENA region.
The book itself examines four intertwining stories, taking place in Africa, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States. In each of these he follows the trail of dirty money to the highest echelons of government which in some cases he identifies as directly complicit in facilitating the strengthening of this global shadow economy.
A significant takeaway from Burgis’s work is the way in which Western institutions not only facilitate but also thrive on the role that kelptocrats play in today’s global economy. This takes place with little to no consideration of the environmental and human cost of these. Despite the string of laws existing which prohibit money laundering, tax evasion and sanctions evasion, Burgis posits that enforcing these laws comes at a cost too high for the global economy to bare. Not in terms of the cost of enforcement, but rather, in a direct fashion, potentially costing banks, brokerages and financial advisors billions a year in revenues.
Similarly, while many imagine dirty money to only flow through hidden accounts belonging to offshore and untraceable corporations, this work shows how the Western financial system, including global stock exchanges and real estate markets, play a role in facilitating the flow of black cash. Sadly, this only comes to light when the revenues are employed for disrupting the democratic process, as was seen in the 2016 US election interference by Russia made possible through exactly such chorniy nal or black cash. Access to similar stores of black cash was indeed what made democratic change possible, such as that enacted by the United States in the 1970’s in Latin America in places like Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Trying to simplify a story that involves tens of individual, countries and companies is no easy feat. While the book attempts to lay these out in a coherent digestible fashion, making the connections between the various actors and understanding implications can at times be confusing. This is particularly true if a reader approaches the book with little background knowledge on geopolitics and particularly, the post Cold War US-Russia rivalry. Despite listing a cast of characters at the start, the author and his readers might have benefitted from a number of visual aids to help those less well versed in this global network follow the trail of dirty money.
The tremendous amount of details provided by this book, although not directly focused on the Middle East and North Africa, have significant implications for the region. Although the impact of the flow of dirty money has been most evident in the Former Soviet Union and Africa, it has and continues to play a similar role in the Middle East. With these flows largely facilitated by the revenues of natural resource sales coupled with the existence of autocratic regimes, the use that such black cash has for both the preservation of undemocratic regimes and the continued violations of human rights in the region is apparent.
Most revealing is the way this book unravels the global network of kleptocracy, which he aptly refers to as “the dark side of globalization” and particularly the way in which the West directly benefits from its existence. Sadly, the complicity of Western leaders, including some former leaders directly in the services of kleptocrats (such as Tony Blair mentioned in the book) makes this a phenomenon which is difficult, if not impossible to put an end to.
The unsung heroes of this story are indeed the tireless army of transparency focused NGO’s, lawyers and investigative journalists such as Burgis who put their lives at risk to put an end to this incessant flow of black cash. Expanding the readership of works such as this and raising awareness among the public is important if there is to be an end to this global problem. As with any plague, pursuing a different course of action is imperative before it is too late and changing courses indeed becomes impossible.