AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Imagine if every day, every interaction you had ended with a demand for a bribe - postal clerks with your mail, police officers stopping you randomly, a bank clerk who refuses to sign off on your paperwork without a little extra cash. That last one happened to Sarah Chayes when she tried to start up a soap factory in Afghanistan.
SARAH CHAYES: I don't know how the next thing happened, but next thing I know, I'm sitting on top of his desk. And I said fine, I'll just sit here until tomorrow, until whenever you get this done. And of course, he starts scurrying around, and we get our paperwork and it's done.
CORNISH: Chayes, a former reporter for NPR, left journalism to focus on helping the people of Afghanistan. The problem is, as she describes it in her book "Thieves Of State," that even when she tried to hold corrupt officials accountable, she did little to help the regular Afghan citizen.
CHAYES: When I insisted on not playing along, I could usually get an exception because I was a foreign female. I was connected in people's minds with 100,000 thousand troops on the ground in their country, and they didn't quite know what would happen if they got into a conflict with me. And the other thing I think that's really important to understand that again, I didn't experience as a foreigner because people treated me carefully, is the amount of humiliation that accompanies this kind of, quote, "petty corruption." I think that Americans have a tendency to see corruption almost as invisible, but this is extorted. It's money that's extorted from people face-to-face by government officials who are treating them incredibly contemptuously, so there's a psychological dimension to this that I think many Americans neglect.
CORNISH: And it's with almost - you're saying in some cases every interaction, right, at every level that you're dealing with the government. Give us an example that kind of...
CORNISH: ...Day to day...
CHAYES: So every time you go past a police checkpoint, if you're driving, someone comes out and shakes you down. People have to pay bribes in order to pay their electricity bills. For the privilege of paying your electricity bill, you get shaken down by the clerks in the electricity department. A friend of mine, who was the police chief of Kabul at the time, was blown up in a remote-controlled improvised bomb. A relative of his, who was an American citizen, was also killed. The son of that relative came to Afghanistan and had to pay bribes in order to get his father's death certificate.
CORNISH: So you say this takes a toll, but you also argue that it creates a kind of fertile environment for the growth or entry of religious extremists - in what way?
CHAYES: It infuriates people. So first of all, you get people who are indignant and personally humiliated in a country like Afghanistan and a significant number of them, especially of males, are going to get violent. So if you have a violent movement that's around and looking to recruit people, there's a likelihood that they are going to really find people who have had an interaction like this or - or five of them or 10 of them - that are ready to get some revenge. More deeply, what I discovered in working on this book is that there is historically a really interesting intersection between acute public corruption and, I would say, militant puritanical religion, and that's in Christianity as well as in Islam. You know, go back and read Martin Luther and you'll find that the "95 Theses" are largely taken up with issues of corruption. And I saw in Nigeria, for example, where I looked at northern Muslim areas, I also looked at some of the Pentecostal churches, which, although they're not violent now, have a lot of pretty violent rhetoric. And the connection seems to be that some people argue that the only way you can achieve public integrity is by way of a very strict code of private morality.
CORNISH: You know, whether it's the Nigerian government or the U.S. military in Afghanistan, what you often hear from governments is that, you know, our primary focus right now needs to be on security. The idea of, like, corruption and good governance, we can deal with that when people aren't fearing for their safety. What's wrong with that argument?
CHAYES: I heard it again and again and again as I was trying to make this case with respect to Afghanistan. And my argument, quite simply, is so long people as people are being abused every day by their government, they will be joining the Taliban or joining Boko Haram every day. And so if you ignore those - those factors, what you'll be doing is essentially mowing the grass, but the grass keeps growing. And so in the end, it's a really self-defeating way of ordering priorities. And I'm not trying to say that corruption is the one driver of, you know, revolutions and violent extremism around the world. Of course, it's intersecting with other risk factors and things like that. But I feel as though this linkage between corruption and acute global security crises, people are missing it.
CORNISH: For the U.S., sometimes the contacts that are used in a country are corrupt themselves, right, but they have some strategic importance, say, in fighting terrorism, for example. I mean, we can't necessarily cut ties in these countries. What's a better way to go? What are some solutions, you think, for handling this situation in countries that are corrupt without making the problem worse?
CHAYES: You can interact with someone without doing so in such a way as to raise their stature. You can choose not to funnel significant developmental resources through that individual. There's quite a range; it takes real understanding of who's who, and it takes some deftness to apply. But I would say the very first thing that the United States government needs to do is improve its intelligence and information gathering around this problem. The United States government has a tendency to assume that its counterpart government is functioning as a government. And so what U.S. officials tend to know about are the official functions of different, you know, government officials in a foreign country. U.S. officials have not done a systematic analysis in countries like Uzbekistan or Nigeria or Cameroon or - or Bulgaria of how this government is actually functioning as a very effective criminal organization.
CORNISH: So they have a flow chart that says what everyone should be doing...
CORNISH: ...But they don't have an accurate picture of what everyone's actually up to.
CHAYES: That's exactly right.
CORNISH: And is the idea that we should be mapping communities in the same way that we map for terrorist organizations?
CHAYES: Absolutely, that's exactly what I have in mind. And then - that then allows those interactions that have to take place at least to be taking place eyes open.
CORNISH: Sarah Chayes, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHAYES: Audie, what a pleasure.
CORNISH: Sarah Chayes, she's a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law program and the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment. Her new book is called "Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security."
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