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Structured dialogue, value chain and competitiveness: A journey through implementation, from Copenhagen to Kabul

Steve Utterwulghe's picture



Afghanistan. Photo by Steve Utterwulghe.

This latest blog post should start with a mea culpa. Indeed, my 2015 work plan for public-private dialogue (PPD) did start in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, not Copenhagen. However, who can swear that he never tweaked a title a tiny bit to make it catchier?
 
While Dushanbe hosted the very productive First Regional PPD Forum in the “stans,” the 8th Global PPD Workshop took place in March in the Danish capital. There, “more than 300 representatives from governments, private enterprises, PPD coordination units, investors’ councils, competitiveness partnerships, civil society, business organizations, and various development partners participated in the event. They represented 54 countries and a total of 40 PPD initiatives who joined the event to share their experiences and discuss lessons learned.”
 
High-powered individuals kick-started the Copenhagen event, including HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, who reiterated that, to make a difference in the world, “it will take partnerships across countries, governments, and between public and private sectors.”
 
Once the keynote speeches had been delivered, the real work began among the delegates and with the PPD experts. I jumped from impromptu coffee break to coffee break and strategized with the Côte d’Ivoire delegation on how to prepare for the National Day of Partnership/Dialogue in Abidjan; discussed ways to better involve the private sector in Morocco; debriefed with the Guinea Minister of Industry, SMEs and Private Sector Promotion on how the PPD structure that we helped put in place is strengthening the local value chain for extractive industries (see below); and moderated an engaging session on public-private dialogue in fragile states and conflict-affected countries (FCS), which provided great insights as I prepared to fly out on PPD missions to Somalia and Afghanistan.
 
Aside from the buzz of international gatherings, what really matters for the delegates, from both governments and the private sector, is to get inspired and bring back home ideas that can be adapted locally and successfully implemented. Public-private dialogue is an art defined by some fundamental core principles that can be adjusted according to specific needs and environments.
 
As a reminder, PPD refers to the structured interaction between the public and private sectors to promote the right conditions for private sector development. Its ultimate function is to contribute to a prosperous economy by expanding market opportunities and enabling private initiative. This is also very much the mission of the new World Bank Group Global Practice on Trade & Competitiveness (T&C). Its Senior Director, Anabel Gonzales, wrote in one of her blog posts on Trade and Development in Africa that fostering competitiveness and strengthening supply chains is a key to development and an integral part of T&C’s offering.
 
As I reflected on the links between structured multi-stakeholder dialogue, competitiveness and supply chains, I remembered a Harvard Business Review article written by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, entitled Strategy and Society: The Link between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility.
 
What particularly caught my attention at the time was the theory on interdependence between companies and society that the Harvard professors put forward. They argued that this interdependence takes two forms: the social impact that a company’s activities has on society, or “inside-out linkages,” and the social influences on the company’s competitiveness, or “outside-in linkages.”
 

Financial risk, resilience and realism: ‘New Economic Thinking,’ amid ominous tremors from the eurozone

Christopher Colford's picture



How safe and how stable is today’s international financial system? Eight years since the global bond markets started quaking – and almost seven years since the Lehman Brothers debacle triggered a worldwide meltdown – is the financial system resilient enough to recover from sudden shocks?

These are not just rhetorical questions, but urgent ones. Amid the ominous recent tremors within the European Union – with the intensifying risk that insolvent Greece could soon “crash out” of the eurozone if it fails to extract more bailout money from its exasperated rescuers – the global financial system may be about to get another real-life lesson in riding out traumatic turbulence.

So mark your calendars for this Wednesday, May 6, when a top-level conference with some of the world’s leading financial luminaries will be livestreamed online at (click here) this website from 9 a.m. to about 5 p.m. Many of the world’s top regulators, policymakers and scholars – brought together by the Institute for New Economic Thinking – will gather at the International Monetary Fund for a day-long exploration of “Finance and Society.”

A sense of déjà vu might seem to surround the conference agenda, especially for World Bank and IMF colleagues who recall the nonstop financial anxiety that consumed the Spring Meetings just a few weeks ago. A similar economic dread reportedly pervaded last week’s Milken Global Economic Conference in Los Angeles.

Yet the INET conference may be poised to offer a somewhat different perspective. The Spring Meetings featured the familiar lineup of business-suited, grim-and-greying Finance Ministers – mostly male, mostly middle-aged, mostly mainstream moderates – but the group of experts at the “Finance and Society” conference will reflect a welcome new dose of diversity. Every major speaker on the agenda is a woman.

The economists at the pinnacle of the world’s most powerful financial institutions – Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Janet Yellen of the U.S. Federal Reserve System – will keynote the conference, and the proceedings will include such influential financial supervisors as Sarah Booth Raskin of the U.S. Treasury and Brooksley Born and Sharon Bowen of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. There’ll also be a pre-conference speech by the woman who has suddenly galvanized the Washington economic debate: No, not Hillary Clinton, but Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The new global roster of financial leaders – in this conference's case, all of them women – illustrates how economic policymaking is now, at last, drawing on the skills of an ever-wider-ranging talent pool. The economic expertise featured this week is bound to mark a positive step forward, considering the ruinous impact of the recent mismanagement by middle-aged mainstream men. (Sorry, guys, but can you really blame people for noticing that the pale-stale-and-male crowd allowed the world to drift toward the Crash of 2008?)

This week’s conference agenda is admirably forthright about the challenge: “Complexity, special interest, and weak systems of governance and accountability continue to interfere with the ability of the financial system to serve society's needs.” With Lagarde and Yellen setting the tone – and with Warren adding an injection of populist vigor – this week’s INET conference seems likely to offer some imaginative insights that go beyond the familiar Spring Meetings formula.

If ever there were a time when an INET-style dose of “new economic thinking” might be needed, it’s now. Growth is sluggish and sometimes even stagnant in many developed nations, amid what Largarde calls “the new mediocre.” Markets are fragile and currencies are volatile in many developing countries. A commodity-price slump may drain the coffers of many resource-rich but undiversified economies. As mournful pundits have been lamenting seemingly ad infinitum and sans frontières, the global economy is suffering from a prolonged hangover after its pre-2008 binge of irrational exuberance.

As if the worries about “secular stagnation” were not enough, there’s also the tragedy of Greece, where an economic calamity has unfolded like a slow-motion car wreck as financial markets breathlessly await the all-too-predictable collision. Regular readers of this blog will surely have noted that fears of Greece’s potential crashout from the eurozone have been nearing a crescendo – and the possible default-to-the-drachma drama may soon reach its catharsis.

Cheap money: Addiction and ‘cold turkey’ risks

Erik Feyen's picture

The U.S. Federal Reserve System has taken new steps toward raising interest rates, but there is a disconnect between what the Fed and markets think will happen. What does it all mean for emerging and developing countries?
 
Central banks in developed economies have created an environment of ultra-low interest rates to rekindle economic growth and to battle falling inflation. They’re doing this by keeping policy rates close to zero and “printing money” on an unprecedented scale via a veritable alphabet soup of programs, such as QE, CE, LTRO and TLTRO.
 
These low interest rates have put a lot of pressure on investors, such as pension funds, to generate a decent return, setting off a massive search-for-yield frenzy.
 
This search for yield has created a cash tsunami that has also rolled on the shores of many emerging and developing economies.


 

Greek tragedy: 'Sleepwalking' toward an economic abyss, with eurozone fears pervading the Spring Meetings

Christopher Colford's picture

“All roads lead to Rome” may have been true in ancient times, but policymakers during this Spring Meetings season in Washington have been focused on another classical crossroads: All roads now lead to Athens, as the intensifying eurozone crisis is again stoking fears that Greece may soon “crash out” of the European common currency system – potentially dealing a severe shock to the still-fragile global financial markets.

“The discussions about Greece have pervaded every meeting” during this fast-forward week of finance and diplomacy, said the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. That viewpoint was reinforced by a studious chronicler of the Greek drama’s daily details, Chris Giles of The Financial Times, who asserted – in an unusually dismissive swipe – that “the antics of Greece dominated the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.”

The Greece-focused anxiety was palpable to many Spring Meetings attendees, judging by the number of corridor conversations and solemn sidebars that dwelled on the eurozone drama – especially on the Fund’s side of 19th Street NW. While most forums and panels on the Bank’s side of the street focused on the progress of many developing countries, events at the Fund seemed consumed by the policy contortions within Greece's faltering economy, as Meetings-goers monitored every tremble of their text messages to follow the week’s the week’s staccato bulletin-bulletin-bulletin news of Greece’s financial flailing.

“The mood is notably more gloomy than at the last international gathering,” said Osborne, “and it’s clear . . . that a misstep or miscalculation on either side [of the Greece negotiations] could easily return European economies to the kind of perilous situation we saw three to four years ago.” Having received a $118 billion bailout in May 2010 and a second package of $139 billion in October 2011, Greece is now at an impasse with its creditors: the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. A new government in Greece – having denounced the loan conditions reluctantly accepted by its predecessor governments – is debating how, or whether, it should comply with lenders’ pressure for far-reaching reform. Greece's foot-dragging has exasperated the lenders even as Greece envisions a potential third bailout program.

As the Greek tragedy unfolds, the doleful observation of Wolfgang Münchau in the FT seems all too apt: “Until last week, discussions with Greece did not go well. That changed when the circus of international financial diplomacy moved to Washington for the Spring Meetings. Then it became worse.”

History in the making: 'Policy relevance' and long perspective, with the Spring Meetings starting a series of summits

Christopher Colford's picture

History “is a critical science for questioning short-term views, complicating simple stories about causes and consequences, and discovering roads not taken. Historical thinking – and not just by those who call themselves historians – can and should inform practice and policy today. . . . History can upset the established consensus, expand narrow horizons, and ‘keep the powerful awake at night.’ In that mission lies the public future of the past.” -- "The History Manifesto"
 
Lace up your running shoes and summon your stamina: At the starting line of the Spring Meetings sprint, policymakers and economy-watchers are now poised for an adrenaline-fueled week of debates on diplomacy and development at the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund.
 
History hangs heavily over the Bank and Fund this week, amid an animating awareness that “2015 is the most important year for global development in recent memory,” as World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim declared in a speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an environment that has provoked dire warnings by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde about the danger of prolonged low-growth, high-unemployment “secular stagnation” – with “the new mediocre” threatening to become “the new normal” – this week’s meetings will be just the starting-point in a series of events in 2015 that could define the development agenda for decades.

A July conference in Addis Ababa will determine the financing mechanisms for future development initiatives. A September summit at the United Nations in New York will adopt a detailed set of Sustainable Development Goals. A December forum in Paris will adopt – or reject – a worldwide treaty to restrain climate change. Along the way, the Bank and Fund will convene policymakers – in Lima rather than Washington – for the Annual Meetings in October.

Pulling off a success at any one such summit would be a dramatic achievement. Delivering triumphs at all three summits might require masterstrokes of diplomacy.

“When we look at the longer-term picture,” said Kim in his CSIS speech, “we see that the decisions made this year will have an enormous impact on the lives of billions of people across the world for generations to come." The challenges that Kim and Lagarde analyzed in their pre-Spring Meetings speeches require “governments [to] seize the moment” – starting this week – if they hope for success in the Addis-UN-Paris trifecta.
 

Newest private participation in infrastructure update shows growth and challenges

Clive Harris's picture



In 2013, investment commitments to infrastructure projects with private participation declined by 24 percent from the previous year.  It should be welcome news that the first half of 2014 (H1) data – just released from the World Bank Group’s Private Participation in Infrastructure (PPI) database, covering energy, water and sanitation and transport – shows a 23 percent increase compared to the first half of 2013, with total investments reaching US$51.2 billion.

closer look shows, however, that this growth is largely due to commitments in Latin America and the Caribbean, and more specifically in Brazil. In fact, without Brazil, total private infrastructure investment falls to $21.9 billion – 32 percent lower than the first half of 2013. During H1, Brazil dominated the investment landscape, commanding $29.2 billion, or 57 percent of the global total.

Four out of six regions reported declining investment levels: East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Fewer projects precipitated the decrease in many cases. Specifically, India has experienced rapidly falling investment, with only $3.6 billion in H1, compared to a peak of $23.8 billion in H1 of 2012. That amount was still enough to keep India in the top five countries for private infrastructure investment. In order of significance, those countries are:  Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, India, and China.

Sector investments were paced by transport and energy, which together accounted for nearly all private infrastructure projects that were collected in this update. The energy sector captured high investment levels primarily due to renewable energy projects, which totaled 59 percent of overall energy investments, and it is poised to continue growth due to its increasing role in global energy generation.

The energy sector also had the biggest number of new projects (70), followed by transport (28), then water and sewerage (12). However, transport claimed the greatest overall investment, at $36 billion, or 71 percent of the global total.

While we need to see what the data for the second half of 2014 show, what we have to date suggests that infrastructure gaps may continue to grow as the private sector contributes less. It also suggests that, in many emerging-market economies, there is much work to be done to bring projects to the market that will attract private investment and represent a good deal for the governments concerned. 
 

Piggybanks for plunder: Corrupt cash flows to Global Cities, requiring transparency and complete disclosure of assets

Christopher Colford's picture



Corrupt cash from secretive international sources – deliberately funneled through ‘shell companies’ to conceal the money’s illicit origins – is often used to buy ‘Towers of Secrecy’ in leading global cities like New York, as documented by a recent New York Times investigation.

Cities exert a magnetism that’s irresistible – attracting not just the most ambitious who seek economic opportunity and the most creative who revel in cultural richness, but also lawbreakers and looters: notably nowadays, the corrupt kleptocrats and tax-avoiding oligarchs whose hot money increasingly flows into the safe haven of prime real estate in the world’s leading cities.

At least part of the trend toward soaring center-city property prices, according to many anticorruption monitors, is due to the impact of illicit financial flows. It’s not just the plutocratic One Percenters who are steadily bidding up real-estate valuesPlunderers and profiteers – often concealing their identities, with the aim of shielding their wealth from tax authorities and international asset-trackers – use prestigious parcels of center-city property as a piggybank to shelter their tainted lucre.

The most vibrant and most competitive of Global Cities – notably London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore – have long been magnets for money, luring the world’s most enterprising entrepreneurs as well as its most desperate refugees. As their global vocation and vitality have lured the ambitious and the avaricious, however, the “priced out of Paris” syndrome has often taken over: Gentrification has morphed into “plutocratization,” notes Simon Kuper of The Financial Times, with “global cities turning into vast gated communities where the One Percent reproduces itself.”

Meanwhile, “the middle classes and small companies [are] falling victim to class-cleansing," Kuper asserts. "Global cities are becoming patrician ghettos” – with the middle class and the poor being driven ever-further out from the center-city in search of affordable housing, doomed to interminable commutes to sterile suburbs or brooding banlieues.

Most of the property price spiral in world-leading cities is surely attributable to the allure of cosmopolitan life in an age when urbanization is accelerating worldwide. But as two members of the World Bank Group’s unit on Financial Market Integrity (FMI) and the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative recently wrote in a StAR blog post, the melt-up of prime property prices often involves corrupt money and evasive property-registration practices.

Citing a recent New York Times investigative series that meticulously documented suspicious practices within Manhattan real-estate trends, FMI specialists Ivana Rossi and Laura Pop noted that the property-buyers “took several steps to hide their identity as the real owners of the properties. Some of these steps involved buying condos through trusts, limited liability companies or other entities that shielded their names. Such tactics made it very hard to identify the 'beneficial owner': to figure out who owned what, or who was the ultimate controller of a company (or other legal entities) since the names were not shown in the company records.”

Vast sums are flowing unchecked around the world as never before – whether motivated by corruption, tax avoidance or investment strategy, and enabled by an ever-more-borderless economy and a proliferation of ways to move and hide assets,” said the painstaking New York Times investigation, "Towers of Secrecy," by Louise Story and Stephanie Saul.

Probing “the workings of an opaque economy for global wealth,” the reporters excavated the substrata of this enduring scandal. “Lacking incentive or legal obligation to identify the sources of money, an entire chain of people involved in high-end real-estate sales – lawyers, accountants, title brokers, escrow agents, real-estate agents, condo boards and building workers – often operate with blinders on.”

In a moment of inadvertent self-revelation, a Manhattan real-estate broker confessed her look-the-other-way negligence “when vetting buyers: ‘They have to have the money. Other than that, that’s it. That’s all we need.’ ” A former executive of a property-development firm was equally blunt: “You pretty much go by financial capacity. Can they afford it? They sign the contract, they put their money down with no contingency, and they close. They have to show the money, and that is it. I don’t think you will find a single new developer where it’s different.”

No wonder that the upper reaches of the U.S. real-estate market are “more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous,” the Times analysis found. “For all the concerns of law-enforcement officials that ‘shell companies’ can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.”      

The Times’ discoveries, asserted Rossi and Pop, thus underscore the important issues involved in asset disclosure and "beneficial ownership” rules. Many nations require that public officials fully disclose their financial holdings. Such transparency is one important safeguard against the plundering of public wealth by kleptocrats, corrupt clans or well-connected cronies in countries that are vulnerable to chronic larceny.

Yet some dishonest public officials exploit legal loopholes – or flout the law entirely: “As the StAR publication ‘Puppet Masters’ demonstrated, those that do engage in corrupt activities are likely to use entities such as companies, foundations and trusts to hide their ill-gotten wealth,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “These conclusions are also confirmed by a recent Transparency International UK report. It showed that 75 percent of UK properties in the UK, under criminal investigation since 2004 – as the suspected proceeds of corruption – made use of offshore corporate secrecy to hide the owner’s identities.”

Drawing on a new World Bank Group report (which they co-authored with Francesco Clementucci and Lina Sawaqed), “Using Asset Disclosure for Identifying Politically Exposed Persons,” Rossi and Pop argued that accurate and complete financial disclosure by officials in positions of public trust (known in the financial-integrity world as “Politically Exposed Persons”) are an essential safeguard against the diversion of assets. Such disclosures, by themselves, don’t provide a “magic bullet” solution to prevent corruption, yet they are a vital mechanism in building transparency and trust.

“Once there is an ongoing investigation, the information declared can be very helpful as evidence, both in what has been included as well as omitted,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “In many countries, intentionally leaving out information on a house or a bank account carries serious penalties. Furthermore, financial disclosures can help catch a dishonest public official whose lavish lifestyle – including real estate in a prized location – could not be supported by the resources, such as a public-sector salary, indicated in the declaration.” The key factor in ensuring integrity and combating corruption is thus the full disclosure of “beneficial ownership.”

Property prices in Global Cities are already being propelled upward by the gusher of money that is flooding, through fully legal channels, into the world’s most desirable and stable locations – thus threatening to put affordable housing, in many major cities, beyond the reach of all but the fortunate few. The last thing that already-unaffordable cities need is an unchecked flood of illicit billions and furtive real-estate transactions, which will only intensify the pressure that now threatens to create a renewed boom-and-bust cycle of unstable housing prices.

Urban advocates who are working to promote inclusive, sustainable, resilient and competitive cities will applaud the continued vigilance of asset-trackers and corruption-hunters – like the FMI and StAR units, through their work sans frontières
on the disclosure of beneficial ownership – whose efforts to halt illicit financial flows will provide an additional instrument to help ensure that cities will be as inclusive as possible in a relentlessly urbanizing age.

 

#TakeOn Corruption


Disaster risk and climate threats: Taking action to create better financial solutions

Olivier Mahul's picture

As the people of Vanuatu begin the painstaking task of assessing the damage to their homes, businesses, and their communities in the wake of Cyclone Pam, another assessment is underway behind the scenes.

Given the intensity of the category 5 storm and the reports of severe damage, the World Bank Group is now exploring the possibility of a rapid insurance payout to the Government of Vanuatu under the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative (PCRAFI). 

The Pacific catastrophe risk insurance pilot stands as an example of what’s available to protect countries against disaster risks. The innovative risk-pooling pilot determines payouts based on a rapid estimate of loss sustained through the use of a risk model. 

The World Bank Group acts as an intermediary between Pacific Island countries and a group of reinsurance companies – Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, Sompo Japan Insurance, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance and Swiss Re. Under the program, Pacific Island countries – such as Vanuatu, the Cook Island, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tonga – were able to gain access to aggregate risk insurance coverage of $43 million for the third (2014-2015) season of the pilot. 

Japan, the World Bank Group, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) partnered with the Pacific Island nations to launch the pilot in 2013. Tonga was the first country to benefit from the payout in January 2014, receiving an immediate payment of US $1.27 million towards recovery from Cyclone Ian. The category 5 cyclone hit the island of Ha’apai, one of the most populated of Tonga’s 150 islands, causing $50 million in damages and losses (11 percent of the country’s GDP) and affected nearly 6,000 people.

Globally, direct financial losses from natural disasters are steadily increasing, having reached an average of $165 billion per year over the last 10 years, outstripping the amount of official development assistance almost every year. Increasing exposure from economic growth, and urbanization—as well as a changing climate—are driving costs even further upward. In such situations, governments often find themselves faced with pressure to draw funding away from basic public services, or to divert funds from development programs.


Investing in Innovative Financial Solutions

The World Bank Group and other partners have been working together successfully on innovative efforts to scale up disaster risk finance. One important priority is harnessing the knowledge, expertise and capital of the private sector. Such partnerships in disaster risk assessment and financing can encourage the use of catastrophe models for the public good, stimulating investment in risk reduction and new risk-sharing arrangements in developing countries.

The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) is another good example of the benefits of pooled insurance schemes, and served as the model for the Pacific pilot. Launched in 2007, this first-ever multi-country risk pool today operates with sixteen participating countries, providing members with aggregate insurance coverage of over $600 million with 8 payments made over the last 8 years totaling of US$32 million. As a parametric sovereign risk transfer facility, it provides member countries with immediate liquidity following disasters.

We also know that better solutions for disaster risk management are powered by the innovation that results when engineers, sector specialists, and financial experts come together to work as a team. The close collaboration of experts in the World Bank Group has led to the rapid growth of the disaster risk finance field, which complements prevention and risk reduction. 
 

'Understand clients': The major theme from a World Bank forum on microcredit

Erin Scronce's picture



The conference panel of leading scholars and practitioners on microcredit: From left to right: Esther Duflo, Kate McKee, Lindsay Wallace, Carol Caruso, and Peer Stein.
Photo credit: Michael Rizzo.

On Friday, February 27, researchers, policymakers, investors and practitioners joined forces to move forward in the dialogue around microcredit’s impact on the lives of the poor. Many themes emerged from the day, but perhaps the most salient came from Dean Karlan, who summed things up in 2 words: “Understand clients.”



The Evidence

The conference began with six presentations from researchers Orazio Attanasio, Abhijit Banerjee, Jaikishan Desai, Esther Duflo, Dean Karlan and Costas Meghir, who completed randomized control trials (RCTs) in six countries examining the impact of microcredit. Lindsay Wallace, of the MasterCard Foundation, noted, “These studies may not be new, but they are incredibly important.” While specific findings varied from country to country, the studies confirmed with evidence what many in the field already assumed: that, while microcredit can be good for some, it is no magic bullet for tackling poverty.



 

Vulnerable yet invaluable: Protecting our patrimony by safeguarding art, artifacts, archaeology and assets

Christopher Colford's picture

The spectacular recovery of a long-missing painting by Pablo Picasso – a canvas that had been stolen more than a decade ago, in a daring museum theft in Paris – offers a vivid reminder of the illicit worldwide trade in stolen assets, artworks and archeological artifacts. Preventing the cross-border smuggling of stolen money, art and natural treasures poses a stern challenge to law-enforcement authorities. Yet the vigilance of the international network of corruption-hunters and asset-trackers can often result in a triumph, as illustrated by the case of the now-recovered Picasso.

The art world hailed last week’s revelation that “La Coiffeuse,” painted by Picasso in 1911, had been intercepted in December by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. The painting was identified during its shipment to a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island City, New York, and it was then seized while it was in transit at Port Newark, New Jersey. The work – unseen since its 2001 theft from the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris – had been shipped on December 17 from Belgium to the United States in an innocent-looking FedEx container, adorned with a holiday-season tag marked, “Joyeux Noel.” Its shipping registration papers falsely described it as an “art craft/toy” valued at $37. The legal process that began last week in New York should soon have the canvas on its way back to France, where it is owned by the nation.

The Picasso had been assigned an estimated value of about 2 million euros at the time of its theft in 2001 – suggesting how lucrative the underground market for stolen art may be. Despite any such theoretical valuation, however, such cultural riches are truly beyond price: They belong to humanity’s shared patrimony, and thus their theft is an immeasurable crime against history.



"La Coiffeuse" by Pablo Picasso. Photograph via the U.S. Department of Justice.

The sudden recovery of the Picasso has reminded art-watchers – and law-enforcement officials – that the 25th anniversary of a still-baffling crime is fast approaching: the March 18, 1990 theft of $500 million in artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That theft deprived the world of, among other masterpieces, Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” painted in 1633. Despite occasional rumors that some of the stolen works might be available somewhere on the global black market, that crime remains unsolved – and the criminals, part of the vast international network of art thieves and smugglers, remain at large.

Police agencies and global asset-trackers certainly face a herculean task. International plunder takes many forms – from the “grand-scale corruption” that infects fraudulent banking transactions to the looting of countries’ wealth by dictators and kleptocrats. Cracking down on the illicit flows of funds worldwide – which are sometimes abetted by corruptible accountants and pliant lawyers, who help steer loot to safe havens and stash money in offshore tax-dodging accounts – requires persistent detective work and meticulous forensic accounting. In the case of stolen art treasures, the art world must appeal to the conscience of connoisseurs and dealers – and must rely on the integrity of curators at museums large and small, who surely know better than to traffic in property whose provenance might be even slightly suspicious.

Units like the Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) Initiative – a joint effort by the World Bank and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime – patiently promote cooperation among transnational, national and local law-enforcement bodies. That task requires a commitment for the long haul, as they steadily pursue capacity-building among governments and private-sector watchdog agencies that are determined to build their anticorruption capabilities. Closer legal, technical and financial coordination sans frontières is an indispensable tool in hunting down and repatriating looted lucre.

As in the case of the now-recovered Picasso, the effort to protect priceless artworks sometimes ends in a law-enforcement success. In a just-opened art exhibition in Washington, art-watchers can now get an up-close look at an inspiring example of how a strong national commitment to fighting crime – backed by methodical investigative work and tenacious legal processes – can achieve enduring results.

The Embassy of Italy last week opened an exhibition of irreplaceable artworks that might have forever vanished onto the international black market, had it not been for the work of one of the country's specialized military units: the Guardia di Finanza, which since 1916 has protected Italy from smuggling, drug trafficking and financial crimes. Its specialized art-investigations team, the Gruppo Tutela Patrimonio Archeologico, has successfully prevented the theft of many works of art, some of which can now be seen (by appointment) at the Embassy on Whitehaven Street. Treasures such as these are integral to Italy’s culture and the West's heritage.

In opening the exhibition, Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero noted that “the trafficking of archaeological works is a growing phenomenon that in recent years has spiraled upwards at an alarming rate” – with Italy ranking “first among the countries [that are] victims of this crime. . . . These treasures belong to Italy. But they also belong to European identity and, by extension, to all mankind.”

With the Picasso canvas soon headed back to Paris, and with the recovered art and archaeological treasures now being celebrated at the Embassy, arts-watchers can breathe easier, knowing that these masterworks are secure. But protecting the global patrimony requires the constant vigilance of corruption-hunters and asset-trackers – like the Guardia di Finanza, the StAR unit and their law-enforcement allies worldwide – who stand guard against the plunder of the vulnerable yet invaluable assets that comprise the common heritage of humanity.


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