A Tale of Two Conferences, Part 2

September 18th, 2009

This week, the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development had its yearly conference.  The impressive list of speakers included Senator Carl Levin, Francis Fukuyama, Paul Collier, and Raymond Baker.  The speakers covered a wide array of topics, revealing dozens of ways that illicit financial flows affect development.  It was both eye-opening and brain-exhausting.  That’s a technical term.

The Task Force conference also pushed me to a halting conclusion, revealing a glaring gap in the way I contextualize the Task Force’s work and my job, as well.  I realized that I focus so much—too much—of my time thinking about sandy beaches, tax evading billionaires, and their effect on the developed world’s tax return.  While this context certainly has a place in the discussion, the Task Force conference reminded me that I have forgotten our mission: to alleviate poverty through financial integrity.

Many speeches propelled me to this realization, so pointing out one example seems a bit arbitrary and unfair, but the words that stand out in my mind were those of Anthea Lawson, an advocate from Global Witness.  Ms. Lawson told the story of Denis Nguesso, son of the president of Republic of Congo and head of Cotrade, a public agency which sells Congo’s government oil.  Global Witness found that Nguesso has racked up a series of extravagant credit card charges from Paris to Hong Kong.  His bills were paid off by offshore companies registered in Anguilla, which received money from Congo’s oil sales.  In just one month, June 2005, Nguesso’s bill came to $32,000.  This could have paid for more than 80,000 Congolese babies to be vaccinated against measles.

It went well with what Paul Collier, a globally renowned development Economist, pointed out later that day.  He said “natural resources belong to society, not to private individuals.” Not even those with a hankering for Louis Vuitton.  Anything else is nothing short of plunder.

And it was encapsulated the best by Raymond Baker, Director of Global Financial Integrity, who noted at the offset of the conference, 18 million people per year die of economic deprivation.  That’s more than all the deaths from any other cause.  “We’re at the right place in history at the right time,” he said.

In A Tale of Two Cities the Marquis St. Evrémonde, perfectly content with the status quo of social and economic cruelty in 17th century England, notes that “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery…will keep the dogs obedient to the whip.”  And this conference reminded me that’s the attitude we’re fighting.  It’s not about us and our tax bills.  It’s about changing a system which accepts, and promotes, economic repression of the world’s poorest.

Maybe I sound like a Marxist, so let me give you one last quote.  Gary Becker, a prominent economist, and like so many of his kind, a staunch Republican and believer in free markets, was recently interviewed and asked: “What is the sole purpose of economics?”  (Contrary to popular belief, the correct answer does not include “to employ Economists” or “to guess wrong.”)

Becker answered “to understand and alleviate poverty.”  He’s right.  Understanding and alleviation is the purpose of economics, it’s the purpose of the Financial Task Force, and it should be my purpose, too.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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