Corruption is a truly global crisis and the wealth addiction that feeds it is hiding in plain sight
by Sarah Chayes is the author of On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake (2020), published in the UK as Everybody Knows: Corruption in America, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (2015) and The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (2006).
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, in late 2001, I watched a girl of about nine strip a Kalashnikov rifle, inspect the bullets and reload the sound ones in a matter of minutes. That child lived in a mud-brick house in the middle of a graveyard. I lived there, too. I was staying with her family as I covered the fall of the Taliban regime for National Public Radio in the United States. I thought I’d learn more in the company of ordinary Afghans than in the single hotel in the capital formerly held by the terrorists, where the other Western journalists were. So I asked a militia friend to find me a host family.
That scene in our rug-strewn sitting room, where I slept at night and we gathered by day, stayed with me throughout the decade I remained in Afghanistan. It has stayed with me ever since.
Here is its significance. Afghans know how to fight. Once back in control of their country, that girl’s people did not need close air support to beat off a resurgent Taliban, or armoured vehicles packed with delicate electronics that could be maintained only by highly trained mechanics. What they needed was to be proud of their government. But Afghan government officials began stealing their money. And US government officials ignored – even enabled – the crimes.
This issue, corruption, was not on my mind at all when I decided to quit journalism and move to Afghanistan. I was not thinking about it as I set about rebuilding a village that had been reduced to rubble in the US bombing campaign, or setting up the country’s first independent radio station. I was not trying to impose some Western norm.
It was Afghans who brought the problem to me. Young people I asked about what they wanted to hear on the radio complained of shakedowns by the new governor’s militiamen – who wore US combat fatigues. A quarryman told me he couldn’t sell stone for the houses I was rebuilding: the governor had awarded himself a monopoly. Then he crushed it to gravel and sold it at an exorbitant markup to the US military base outside town.
When I learned Pashtu and moved to an unguarded compound in the middle of town, and the Taliban were filtering back into the region, delegations of elders would come calling. ‘The Taliban hit us on this cheek,’ a dignified spokesman would say, setting down his cup of green tea to deliver a slap to his own face, ‘and the government hits us on this one!’
So I started working on corruption: because I knew that if the US government kept helping it flourish, we – and the Afghan people – would lose the war. And we did.
But the loss of the longest war the US ever fought was hardly the first time corruption has shaped history.
‘They preach only human doctrines’ – not Holy Writ – ‘who say that as soon as the money clinks in the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.’ So reads Thesis 27 in a carefully sequenced series of statements that a law student-turned-priest and theology professor named Martin Luther wrote in 1517. At the time, the Catholic Church, the dominant power in Europe from the edge of Ireland nearly to Moscow, was engaged in a vast extortion racket. Worshippers could avoid the torments of a ghastly pre-Judgement Day refugee camp called Purgatory, if they just shelled out the price of an ‘indulgence’, a papal safe-conduct.
In 1517, a sales push was launched in Germany. Half the proceeds were earmarked to cover the staggering debt a young cleric had taken on to buy a powerful archbishopric from the pope. A bling-loving scion of the Medici dynasty, that pope routinely auctioned off Church offices and waivers of canon law. The rest of the return on indulgence sales would go straight to Leo X himself, to help pay for a gaudy piece of real estate.
Thesis 66: ‘The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.’ Why, wonders Luther’s Thesis 86, did the stupendously rich pope not ‘build this one basilica of St Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?’
Without the outraged Indigenous allies who joined him, could Cortés have brought down that great empire?…