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Thieves of State – Sarah Chayes (review)

Thieves of State – Sarah Chayes, published by W W Norton & Company, New York and London, 2015

This is an important book and its publication is timely, given recent developments. Sarah Chayes uses her own experience in Afghanistan as the thread around which she weaves her narrative. What she has to say is complying, and her insight that the Afghan government operates like a criminal enterprise is valuable. What she came to understand was that money in Afghanistan flows up to the centre, to those at the top of the political system, as officials pass a percentage of their “take” from local corruption, over-priced contracts, and the like up the chain of command. In return the central administration offers protection to those lower down the chain of command. She says, “In today’s Afghanistan, the money is moving upward within the system and is largely sent outside of Afghanistan altogether.” Then, “In return, the government provides free rein (‘permission’) to extract resources, protection from repercussion, and punishment of officials with too much integrity.”

Such governments are kleptocracies, where wealth is channelled to a small number of people at the top of the system. The public in such countries experiences a growing anger at their treatment and at the impossibility of addressing these problems. Sarah also looks at older texts, or “mirrors”, aimed at educating rulers to the dangers of abuse of their position. Nizam al-Mulk, writing in the 11th century, warned against taking more from farmers than was strictly due, and of the need to exercise justice at all times. She also looks at the nature of the rebellions in the Netherlands (16th century) and England (17th century) against arbitrary and dictatorial government.

In conclusion I strongly recommend this book, which may cause some to reflect on the causation of revolt and social unrest.

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