Corrupt financial systems help Russian oligarchs and hurt ordinary people. Philanthropy must do more to support change.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, law enforcement in the United States, Europe and other jurisdictions attempted to seize luxury yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs. But they quickly discovered a problem: ownership of a yacht is extremely difficult to confirm because most are registered with front companies that allow wealthy people to conceal their identities.
Not only do these practices complicate the effective use of sanctions to punish Russia, but they also disrupt the lives of ordinary people in areas that philanthropy strives to address every day.
Consider, for example, the impact on affordable housing of money laundering schemes that allow buyers who pay cash for expensive real estate to protect both their identity and the source of the money. This practice has contributed to skyrocketing housing prices in many parts of the United States and has made market entry much more difficult for first-time buyers and low-income people.
In developing countries endowed with abundant natural resources, wealthy people with political ties hide their identities, often through front companies, as they engage in corrupt and illegal deals to extract oil, gas and minerals. The roughly $1 trillion lost each year as a result of these deals could instead be spent on public services in areas such as health, education and economic opportunity. Opaque financial systems are also the source of many social ills, including facilitating drug and arms trafficking and facilitating the financing of terrorism and other illegal activities.
Too often, philanthropy focuses on the symptoms of bad governance, corruption and failing financial systems rather than the underlying causes. While development assistance and humanitarian assistance are important, donors need to look beyond these traditional areas of support.
Dozens of nonprofits are engaged in important work to promote financial transparency, but they need more philanthropic investment to have lasting impact. If there was ever a time for philanthropy to broaden its engagement in this area, it’s now. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought new attention to the problem of dirty money and the weaknesses of financial systems around the world. Political leaders are looking for answers, and philanthropy can provide the funding nonprofits need to uncover corruption and advocate for lasting change. Here are four ways funders can make a difference:
Help close loopholes that allow kleptocrats to hide their assets. The challenge of locating the assets of Russian oligarchs shows why tougher financial transparency laws are urgently needed. Non-profits such as Transparency International, which leads a global anti-corruption movement, and Tax Justice Network, a research center for the reform of tax systems, reacted quickly to the invasion of Ukraine by calling on governments to accelerate anti-corruption measures. They appealed to policy makers to, among other things, increase transparency of ownership of luxury goods and establish a system for reporting and disclosing information about the true owners of yachts and private jets.
As more countries launch efforts to hold Russian oligarchs accountable, including the Justice Department’s new KleptoCapture task force, those of us who have long advocated for legal changes to the financial system have finally opportunity to see these efforts come to fruition. Philanthropy can play an important role in funding advocacy efforts and ensuring that these issues remain at the center of political agendas.
Support the effective enforcement of existing financial transparency laws and policies. Many laws are in place that should help curb dirty money, but many are poorly enforced, often because law enforcement is under-resourced.
Groups such as the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition, an alliance of more than 100 state, national and international organizations, began drawing attention to the issue before the Ukraine crisis. Last year, the organization’s advocacy efforts prompted a bipartisan group of 38 members of Congress to call for increased funding for the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which is responsible for combating money laundering and other illicit uses of the financial system. Now the coalition is lobbying Congress for emergency funding to provide the agency with the resources it needs to enforce sanctions against Russian oligarchs.
Philanthropic investments focused on the enforcement of financial transparency laws can have substantial returns. The United Nations estimates that money laundering costs the global economy up to $2 trillion a year.
Coordinate philanthropic efforts globally, not just in individual jurisdictions. Today’s financial system is truly global, with dirty money flowing to the weakest link. This means that the measures taken in the United States must align with those taken in other countries.
But such coordination does not happen automatically. This requires continued support from groups such as the Financial Transparency Coalition, which coordinates research and advocacy across the world. Its members, including the nonprofit organizations Latindadd and the Pan African Lawyers Union, put the interests of developing countries at the center of these efforts. Similarly, Open Government Partnership brings together government and civil society organizations from more than 70 countries to engage and monitor what is happening, including publishing data on who owns expensive properties and other assets.
Donor collaborations are also an effective tool for pooling resources to address this complex global issue. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a donor collaboration led by Michael, has awarded about $35 million since 2013 to organizations that explicitly advocate for financial transparency. This support has led to major policy victories in eight jurisdictions around the world, including the passage last year of the Transparency in Business Act, which requires the creation of a federal registry in the United States to track the real business owners.
Support ongoing efforts to uncover corruption in the financial system. Governments are often reluctant to support the efforts of surveillance and investigative media to expose illicit activities. But the impact of such work is undeniable – and philanthropic support is essential. The best-known recent example is that of the Panama Papers, coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He exposed financial corruption around the world, provoked street protests and toppled governments. The fallout from the 2016 survey continues to this day.
More recently, an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project uncovered Swiss banking transactions with Russian oligarchs, including loans for their yachts. Such work, however, is often carried out with little means and at great personal risk. Russian investigative journalist Roman Anin has been harassed by Russian authorities after writing about the connection between an oligarch and his yacht.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, independent media in Russia, which has played a significant role in exposing financial corruption, have been forced out of the country or into hiding. These media outlets also faced extreme financial difficulties. For example, international sanctions have made it impossible for the Meduza Project, an independent Russian-language media organization now working from Latvia, to collect donations from readers who have supported its operations. He appealed for funding from Western sources so that he could continue his work.
Through coordinated strategies, nonprofit advocacy and research organizations, independent media, and the donors who support them will not only help punish Vladimir Putin and his cronies, but they will also fix a broken system that for too long , fuels corruption in the world. It’s time to put an end to the opaque financial structures that both facilitate illicit activity and undermine progress in so many areas that matter to philanthropy.