World Bank targets corruption in ‘havens’

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The World Bank has announced a new programme of asset recovery, to be undertaken jointly with the UN. As its president Robert Zoellick said yesterday:

There should be no safe haven for those who steal from the poor

But the story is much more than another one about attempts top recover the assets stolen from developing countries. The story represents a major change in position by the Bank and its partners. The StAR (Stolen Asset Recovery) initiative is according to UN director Antonio Maria Costa,:

a turning point in the global fight against corruption. From now on it should be harder for kleptocrats to steal the public's money, and easier for the public to get its money back

Quoting figures from Ray Baker, a Tax Justice Network adviser, they noted that the cross-border flow of the global proceeds from criminal activities, corruption, and tax evasion is estimated at between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion per year. Even a portion of recovered assets could provide much-needed funding for social programs or badly needed infrastructure. Every $100 million recovered could fund full immunizations for 4 million children, provide water connections for some 250,000 households, or fund treatment for over 600,000 people with HIV/AIDS for a full year.

The StAR plan for achieving this is new work by both agencies and is detailed in outline here. As important though are some of the stories behind the press release. In particular documents I have been sent (not available on the web) say that the StAR initiative will:

* sponsor research that analyzes the costs imposed on developing countries trying to recover stolen assets by trusts, protected shell companies, and other complex legal structures found in financial centers when compared with the benefits these vehicles offer the sponsoring jurisdictions;

* urge financial centers to see that their customer identification and risk-based due diligence procedures focus on politically exposed persons (PEPs) and intermediaries and shell corporations acting on their behalf and that the laws of financial centers provide for the rapid freezing of assets and robust measures for their forfeiture and return;

* advocate that associations of professionals in financial centers (i) ensure their members know their professional and legal responsibilities when dealing with PEPs and (ii) see that those who ignore these obligations are sanctioned;

This is extraordinarily welcome news. No longer can professional people claim they have no role in corruption: the Bank recognises that they have. As is the emphasis in the supporting documentation on offshore financial centres as havens welcome. Take this, for example:

Such assets are often hidden in banks located in the financial centers of developed countries, although financial havens have begun to appear in emerging market countries as well.

Attitudes towards financial crime are changing, and the role of the suppliers of corruption services are being seen as central to the process. Anyone with a concern for development, democracy and the integrity of the world's financial systems should welcome this.

Disclosure: I had prior opportunity to discuss this programme with the World Bank.

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