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The inner dimensions of global corruption

Cultural shift

As more money from corruption flows across borders – raising popular anger – global solutions are needed. But which solutions will strike at the heart of corruption?

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British Prime Minister Davis Cameron, center, is joined by US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, at the international anti-corruption summit May 12 in London.

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John Kerry may now be the most traveled US secretary of State in history, touching down in dozens of countries a year and feeling the pulse of humanity. What is he finding? People are angry over what they feel is a rigged system, he told a global conference on corruption in London on Thursday. “And the anger is going to grow,” he said.

The global reach of corruption – which is the abuse of public office for private gain – now requires global solutions. Mr. Kerry said corruption “is as much of an enemy” as extremist terrorism. British Prime Minister David Cameron said it lies at the heart of economic uncertainty and endemic poverty. And in a report for the conference, the International Monetary Fund said corruption undermines trust in elected leaders and erodes ethical standards.

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The IMF estimates the annual cost of bribery to be at least 2 percent of the global gross domestic product. That feeds the desperation and anger that Kerry finds. But corruption is more than bribery. It is also the wholesale theft of a nation’s resources, such as oil revenues, and the secret transfer of these stolen assets to other countries. Such theft is driving the political upheavals now seen in countries such as Ukraine, Brazil, and the Philippines.

The conference focused on exposing and curbing these illicit transfers, mainly  with calls to bring transparency to financial flows and to the real ownership of “shell” companies in tax havens. A number of countries agreed to set up public registries of firms in order to track their activities.

But as Kerry pointed out, tackling corruption requires more than changes in practices and procedures. A country’s culture must also change.

That is certainly the case for Nigeria, where a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, was elected last year on a promise to curb corruption. He has begun to change the rules for government procurement and the country’s oil industry. He also asked Britain to crack down on Nigerians with stolen money in London banks. But he’s up against a deep cultural acceptance of corruption in his own country.

In a new book on Nigerian corruption, “This Present Darkness,” the late British scholar Stephen Ellis writes that the best way to solve the problem is to delve into the spiritual dimensions of Nigerian life. Unless Nigerians embrace rule of law and a social responsibility to others, he wrote, the organized crime behind corruption will persist.

That sounds like a cure for any country dealing with high levels of corruption. It may also be a cure for the anger that America’s top diplomat finds around the world.