News 10th Aug 2017

Not All Superheroes Wear Capes: My Week Fighting Corruption



The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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Munye Abrar is a 17-year-old student who recently spent a week on work experience with TI-UK. Here he reflects on his time fighting corruption:

Fighting corruption is not the way Batman makes it seem. There are no capes, gadgets, high speed chases and butt-kicking of eccentric villains. At least not at Transparency International UK (TI-UK). There are only smartly dressed people in an office with headphones in all day typing or poring through dense publications. Every so often, they meet one another to share what results the typing and poring brought about. Do not fret, there are also government meetings in the treasury and, if you are lucky enough to work in TI France, you would find yourself embroiled in a high profile global case – I have followed this high octane trial very keenly. This is against the playboy son of the president of Equatorial Guinea who has used state money to fund a lifestyle so lavish he bought a six-storey mansion with twenty bedrooms. Sounds like a character cooked up by DC Comics.

My week of work experience has been exactly that: an experience. I am by no means an expert on it, I can proudly say I know a fraction more about the world of corruption. Firstly, it was a lot bigger than I thought it would be and its broad definition encompasses so many things. It is not just the politician who gives and accepts bribes. It is the abuse of power whereby an individual in a position of authority violates a law, rule or code of conduct, for private gain.

Understanding that corruption was about more than just bribery was a real eye opener for me, although looking into how bribe payments erode public trust in the system as a whole was essential. As TI-UK itself says, this can lead to a ‘dangerous’ distrust and apathy in the system making it easier for criminals to get away with corruption. This is what was, and could still be, happening in Yemen where the police force had to be paid off in order to incentivise them to investigate cases. However, you have to hope someone else did not pay more for the opposite effect of which you intended.

Does this sound so different from Gotham? Yes. Bruce Wayne is not there to augment the failed police force. I have come to learn that it also spreads beyond just the superficial world of politics. It also sticks its nasty fingers into the pies of sport, healthcare, education and many other societal sectors.

Secondly, my week has also destroyed the neo-colonial assumption that the UK is a bastion of morality and anti-corruption. While the government does try to constantly improve the situation, with a few nudges from TI-UK, Great Britain, being home to the financial capital of the world plays its part in this seedy world. The London property market acts as a laundromat for oligarchs and despots. I have read reports of entities known as Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs) a tool used for corporate secrecy; imagine Mossack Fonseca (Panama Papers) right on our doorstep. More of these were set up last year than in the entire century before it. Money laundering is in this season. All of this sounds like a conspiracy theory but SLPs were allegedly used to launder up to $80 billion of Russian illicit money; an event aptly named ‘The Global Laundromat’. Even the Joker could not have dreamt of such audacity.

If you think paying officials off is unique to LEDCs, then google ‘Cash For Questions’ and wince as your innocent heart breaks. What is more worrying is what the UK turns a blind eye to in its overseas territories. The Cayman and British Virgin Islands are used as havens for the super-rich and for the super evil to hide their money behind corporate opaqueness. Although we live in a global economy of tax competition, as opposed to upholding and maintaining a high standard of integrity and good morals, Britain chooses to accept the sad descent into a world where everyone wants to be a tax haven. Instead of being a world leader, on this issue, we are a world sheep. However, it is not all doom and gloom. The government does (sparingly) tackle this issue. TI-UK celebrated the passing of the Criminal Finances bill and the introduction of Unexplained Wealth orders in April 2017 (after three years of hatching the idea). No longer will a despot on a £45,000 salary be able to purchase a £10 million mansion without raising a few legal eyebrows. A step in the right direction after seven years (Bribery act passed in 2010) of not much activity.

The final thing I learnt was that young people are the perfect soldiers to fight the war against corruption. The war is going digital people. Keyboard warriors assemble! The future might make the battle as ‘gizmocentric’ as Batman’s. The internet is a wonderful creation, for both regular people like ourselves and criminals. Why launder money the boring, tedious and old-fashioned way? Bitcoin and Ethereum can easily hide the origin and destination of your money as well as your identity. If you are the Russian mafia, then shell companies are a thing of ancient history. At a meeting of the UK Parliament’s Committee on Standards in Public Life they announced that social media was on their list of things to watch. Any person under 25 would tell you that social media’s influence on politics and transparency should have been watched years ago. The room of people was also not exactly the youngest. The war for global transparency needs fresh blood, ideas and skills. It needs us; people who think faster than the next generation of thugs and who know how to beat them at their own game. Even if they change the terms of play.

The world of corruption is not something irrelevant to young people. It affects us the most. When the Committee mentioned that academy schools and their governance, this has a direct link to where I spend a minimum of six hours a day. When they said they would look into social media, I asked Dr Barrington, TI-UK’s Executive Director, to email them to explain what that would look like and whether it would have the desired effect they seek. I have been on the inside of what is generally the opaque world of transparency. It was vital and necessary though. So whether it is working constructively with all parties involved as TI-UK does, or whether you fancy the adrenaline filled world of undercover investigations at Global Witness, join the struggle against evil. The most important thing I have learnt this week is that the struggle needs us. So put on your capes and jump into your Bat-mobiles all the way to Great Dover Street. I am flashing the Bat signal. Join this shadow war.