Sarah Chayes explains how corruption is integrated into different societies around the world


Written by Kelly Higginson, CAS communications intern

Sarah Chayes, a former journalist and military adviser with in-depth experience in Afghanistan, addressed a large audience about her discovery of the different kinds of corruption and how they connect to the security crisis all around the globe.

Her lecture was based on her book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security and sponsored by Miami's International Studies Program for the Grayson Kirk Distinguished Lecture Series. It was held Tuesday, April 21 in the Harry T. Wilks Theater in the Armstrong Student Center.

In 1989, Chayes says she "bailed" out of her PhD program specializing in Islamic studies and started reporting for National Public Radio.

"I am not proposing that you guys bail out of higher education, but things sometimes that feel like failures, often lead to better outcomes than you might have thought," she said.

Further down the road, in 2002, Chayes also found herself "bailing out" of NPR to head to Kandahar, Afghanistan, a place that was undergoing a turning point in history.

"During this time, the best way to convince Afghans that the war wasn't U.S. against Afghan was to help start rebuilding their houses with mud brick," Chayes said. "This was my introduction to corruption."

Chayes asked the audience what they thought corruption might mean and explained that corruption means something in every language.

"It means public gang, but also the notion of depraved values," Chayes said. "It is quite a profound word."

In Afghanistan, Chayes observed shakedowns, a form of police corruption that is rigorously given to citizens of Afghans for government money.

While there, she tried to understand the corruption and helped manage an Afghan nongovernmental, nonprofit organization called Afghans for Civil Society.

In 2005, Chayes continued her efforts to help the corrupted society and founded Arghand, where she purchased different fruits and bases from local farmers to create her own skincare products.

According to Chayes, there are many different types of corruption. The state legislation would say there is "predatory corruption," which is police shaking people down, but there is also other types like "high-level corruption."

"What I discovered is it's an integrated system," Chayes said. "I watched a guy in customs come around and grab his daily payment. He then paid his part up the line, so it is all being funneled upwards to senior government officials."

Chayes came to understand this system in 2009 when she was living in Kandahar and managing her soap factory. When she returned to Washington D.C., she realized that corruption is very different in America.

"There isn't a monopoly on construction materials, and I don't get shaken down by the police every day," Chayes said. "I think we underestimate corruption in a daily way."

Chayes closed her lecture with a thought from John Locke, the 17th century philosopher.

"He helped imagine the kind of government that our framers built. When there is a bare face of the law to benefit a man or a party of men, war is made on the sufferers," she said.