Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Wealthy Nations Urged to Rein in Dirty Money

At the annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund gathering in the historic city of Marrakech, a piercing question echoed among attendees: How would you manage $800 billion? This inquiry was far from a mere thought experiment.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that a staggering $800 billion to $2 trillion is laundered globally every year, constituting about 5% of the worldwide GDP.

Amid the intricate interplay of debates — focusing on whether Africa’s developing nations should emphasize debt repayment over societal investments — the siphoning of billions due to illicit financial practices stands as a monumental hindrance to growth. At the heart of this conundrum are the professionals in affluent nations: lawyers, accountants, and the like, who enable the drainage of vast sums from the already sparse tax bases of some of the world’s most impoverished nations.

Historically significant, the Marrakech conference marked the first time in half a century that the World Bank and IMF convened on African soil, a continent where nearly $98 billion annually evaporates due to money laundering.

Money laundering, in essence, is the clandestine movement or conversion of assets known to be of illicit origin. Established in 1989, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) stands as a sentinel against these shadowy financial transactions.

Each year, the FATF releases its “calls to action,” naming and shaming jurisdictions that fall short in their anti-money laundering efforts. Being named on this list does more than merely blemish a nation’s image — it can trigger economic repercussions from FATF member states. Yet, while the FATF’s lists have frequently spotlighted transgressions in impoverished or autocratic nations, as showcased by the recent inclusion of North Korea, Myanmar, and Iran, major financial centers like the U.S. and Switzerland have remained notably absent.

The overarching sentiment at the Marrakech gathering, as articulated by speakers from the IMF, Transparency International, and Tax Justice Network, was one of profound dissatisfaction with the current global mechanisms. They highlighted the FATF’s somewhat broad-brush approach, examining countless nations in painstaking detail rather than zeroing in on the handful of advanced economies that serve as the primary conduits for laundering. This strategy was analogized to a flawed law enforcement paradigm where both minor offenders and major criminal kingpins receive analogous scrutiny. Bolstering this argument, evidence was presented indicating that the lion’s share of money laundering operations are anchored in affluent countries.

Central to these operations is an influential cadre of professionals in nations like the U.S. and Switzerland. Taking advantage of gaps in anti-money laundering laws and leveraging privileges like attorney-client confidentiality, they play a pivotal role in perpetuating these financial malfeasances. A clarion call resonated from the conference: The global community and FATF must exert more forceful pressure on these wealthy nations to exact stringent repercussions on those who grease the wheels of money laundering.

The Marrakech gathering, like others before it, was a fertile ground for collaboration among academics, civil society, business magnates, and governments, aiming to dissect the world’s most pressing challenges. As dialogues wove between the dual objectives of managing national debt and amplifying public services, a resonant theme emerged — the potential for enlarging the financial reserves of developing nations by staunching the flow of laundered money at its wealthy sources.