Kleptocratic networks: corruption’s operating system


In some five dozen countries worldwide, corruption can no longer be understood as merely the iniquitous doings of individuals. Rather, it is the operating system of sophisticated networks that cross sectoral and national boundaries in their drive to maximize returns for their members, according to Sarah Chayes, Senior Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program.

In Honduras, for example, the three interlocking spheres are roughly co-equal in psychological impact if not in amounts of captured revenue. They retain a degree of autonomy, and are often disrupted by internal rivalry:

  • This system’s operations devastate the environment—though Honduras is not a “resource” country. Most threats to biodiversity derive from deliberate “development” policies—whose primary purpose is actually to funnel rents to network members.
  • Modern renewable energy, as well as hydropower, is captured by the network. The migrant crisis is also fueled by this brand of corruption.
  • Repression is carefully targeted for maximum psychological effect. An example was the March 2016 assassination of environmental and social justice activist Berta Cáceres, which reverberated through like-minded communities.
  • The kleptocracy benefits from significant external reinforcement, witting or unwitting, including not just military assistance, but much international development financing.


One feature of these networks is their horizontal integration. Americans can get into heated arguments about which is more pernicious, the public or the private sector. But we presume there is a distinction between the two. In kleptocracies, that line is rubbed out, writes Chayes (right), proposing two conclusions from her analysis:

  • First, it is impossible to operate in economic sectors controlled by such networks — in places like Azerbaijan, the Philippines, Kazakhstan or Turkey — without becoming entangled. That means either receiving favors — such as cut-rate prices on things like land, utilities or hard-to-get permits — or participating in money laundering, or submitting to a pay-to-play bargain, effectively paying bribes. Or all of the above.
  • Second, networks are stubborn, flexible, resilient structures. In case after recent case, sanctioning a top network member, even bringing down a government, has failed to eradicate the network and its practices. In Brazil and Guatemala, rival strands, alike in practices, have taken the place of disgraced kleptocratic cliques. Egypt’s military network seemed content to decapitate itself, throwing former President Hosni Mubarak to the mob, only to better reconstitute in the years since the 2011 revolution. Even Tunisia’s trajectory could best be described as restoration, not transformation.

The National Endowment for Democracy’s 2017 Democracy Award will honor anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy activists around the world: Claudia Escobar – Guatemala; Denys Bihus –Ukraine; Rafael Marques de Morais – Angola; Cynthia Gabriel – Malaysia; and Khalil Parsa – Afghanistan.

With remarks from The Honorable Paul Ryan, Speaker, U.S. House Of Representatives; The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader, U.S. House of Representatives. RSVP

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