“Dirty money: breaking the link between organised crime and politics” ODI - INTERNATIONAL IDEA event

• What are the connections between illicit networks and corrupt politicians?
• What are the institutional dynamics that allow these relations to be forged?
• What kind of impact does organised crime have on mechanisms of accountability and representation?
• What can international development actors do to respond?

Dirty money: breaking the link between organised crime and politics
These were some of the questions that were addressed at the event, ‘Dirty money: breaking the link between organised crime and politics’, which was hosted in partnership with International IDEA. The diverse panel, including researchers, a police officer, a journalist, and representatives from a civil society organisation, and from a multilateral development organisation, provided for a rich discussion from a variety of angles.

Dirty money is big business

Dirty money in politics is a pervasive problem that undermines the quality of electoral processes and democratic governance across the developing world.  According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the global drugs trade is worth around US$435 billion a year and, as Lanre Akinola from the Financial Times, who chaired the meeting, put it, ‘It’s big business: and we all know about the relationship between big business and politics’.

While problems with organised crime may vary across countries and regions, what was striking about the different case studies presented – from the Baltics, Latin America and West Africa – was how similar are many of the challenges that criminal networks pose to the quality of democratic governance.

There are often high levels of collusion between organised crime networks, politicians, business actors, government institutions; collusion, at times, involving even civil-society organisations and foundations, as Frank Okyere noted, which undermines mechanisms of accountability and representation. Illicit networks are often used for personal enrichment, influencing elections and ensuring protection from prosecution.

In Latvia, for example, Artis Velšs talked about a mayor who had abused his position in power to build an extensive network of criminal activity that includes money laundering, smuggling, and other forms of corruption. In Colombia, Catalina Uribe Burcher discussed how power-sharing arrangements between the two main criminal networks in a municipality in Medellín have done away with electoral competition. Several of the speakers also highlighted a perverse dynamic whereby ‘criminal networks also deliver basic services, and therefore get population support, especially among the poor’.

So what can be done?

Yet, despite its deleterious impact on political processes, dirty money from criminal networks is an issue that, as Lanre put it, is not sufficiently talked about and deserves much more serious attention in international circles. So what can be done? Camino Kavanah, who was the lead researcher of the Center on International Cooperation - New York University (CIC-NYU) publication Getting Smart and Scaling Up: Responding to the Impact of Organized Crime in Developing Countries, stressed that an essential first step is for development actors to acknowledge that dirty money is a reality and that it will not go away by ignoring it.

Francesca Recanatini from the World Bank emphasised that dirty money and corruption are, at their core, issues about politics and power. These are not easy dynamics to engage with, but she stressed that if the Bank and other international actors want to achieve real traction in the work that they do, they will need to do much more in terms of addressing power relations.

The conversation suggested that, in the end, it is not clear whether the international community has the will to act on the influence of dirty money in politics, and several commentators urged for the need ‘to think outside the box’ in tackling this challenge.