Op-Ed by U.S. Secretary John Kerry: Time To Treat Corruption with Seriousness It Deserves

London anti-corruption summit will promote global efforts to increase transparency and empower citizen oversight.

In nearly every corner of the world in recent years, from the Arab Spring to Latin America and many places in between, political turbulence has made clear that governments are unwise to shrug off their citizens’ growing concerns about corruption. It is a poison that erodes trust, robs citizens of their money and their future and stifles economic growth in the places that need it most. And this epidemic is pervasive and growing: one in three people living in the Middle East and North Africa have been forced to pay a bribe for essential public services. And corruption persists in every region and country around the world, including my own.

It is long past time for the international community to treat corruption with the seriousness and attention it deserves. That is why, this week, I will join representatives from over fifty nations, multinational organizations, and civil society for the first-of-its-kind global Anti-Corruption Summit in London. There, we will announce practical steps to strengthen the fight against corruption, from launching an International Anti-Corruption Coordination Center that will improve data sharing between major financial hubs and cooperation on investigations, to expanding support for journalists struggling to uncover graft across the globe.

By crippling basic functions of the state like security and justice, corruption creates a frustration and vacuum that violent extremists eagerly fill with false promises of a better deal. That helps explain how Daesh took root in Iraq and why the Taliban endures in Afghanistan. Until we prioritize the fight against corruption, these heinous groups will continue to prey on grievances and recruit new followers who feel disempowered, disrespected and convinced that the traditional system is rigged against them.

Traffickers and cartels also thrive on corruption, and the most vulnerable — women, children, and minorities — often pay the greatest price. Corruption also enables bad actors to impact government decisions in ways that almost always harm ordinary citizens. Open any newspaper and you’ll find reports of ministers captured by graft, border guards bribed to look the other way, or criminals set free for a small fee.

Equally troubling, corruption not only fuels many of today’s greatest threats; it can also handicap governments’ ability to address them. For example, when President Buhari of Nigeria took office last year, he found an army hollowed out by graft and unready to confront Boko Haram. Similarly, when Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi assumed power in 2014, he exposed 50,000 “ghost” soldiers on the payrolls costing $380 million each year and leaving the army undermanned to fight Daesh.

These realities demand that we make anti-corruption a first-order priority in our foreign policy. To meet that charge, we need an approach that is both broad and bold.

Stronger penalties and enforcement are important, but as a former prosecutor, I know that focusing on punishment alone won’t solve the underlying problem. We have to match our emphasis on punishing corruption with new efforts to prevent corruption in the first place. We can do that by helping governments create more transparent and streamlined processes to reduce opportunities for graft. We can train citizens and journalists to provide oversight and deter wrongdoing. And we can embrace new technologies to expand access to information and empower civil society to partner with law enforcement.

The global community can also better seize narrow windows of opportunity when the moment for reform is ripe. That could be the election of a new leader who campaigned to end corruption. Or it could be public outcry about new evidence of corruption coming to light, as we saw in Guatemala last year, where 19 weeks of peaceful protests led to the resignation and prosecution of a sitting president. No effort to end corruption can succeed without political will on the ground, and we should ensure that committed reformers receive assistance in time to make a real difference.

And certainly, we all bear a responsibility to tackle corruption within our own nations, including the United States. That’s the goal of new legislation proposed by President Obama last week that would collect, for the first time, ownership information on shell companies from all U.S. states and territories to help law enforcement prevent and investigate financial crimes. The Obama Administration also pledged to shed more light on shady real estate transactions in places like New York City and Miami, which are often used to shelter illicit funds, and to close a loophole that allows foreigners to hide potentially illicit financial activity behind anonymous U.S. entities. With these steps, we are escalating the fight against corruption and urge governments across the globe to join us.

After all, governments spend a lot of time — and resources — on threats like violent extremism, transnational crime and fragile states. Yet by ignoring their profound links to corruption, we make our work that much harder. Today, we can no longer plead ignorance. If we are serious about taking on these threats and building a safer and more secure world, then we must get serious about tackling corruption.

About the Author: John Kerry serves as the 68th Secretary of State of the United States.