The State of the Illicit Economy
November 12 2015
When I was asked to make this presentation by the Conference Board I couldn’t decide whether to focus on what I call the drivers or equation of insecurity or something more thematic, like the illicit economy and the work that we have been doing at the World Economic Forum. Obviously they are interconnected but I felt that for this audience the illicit economy might be more appropriate.
I say this for three reasons;
- The global illicit economy has grown at an unprecedented pace, in both relative and absolute terms, ushering in immense risks to society, governance and the global economy.
- Much of the illicit trade is opportunistic and thrives on gaps in capacity and vulnerabilities in policy regimes across countries and regions.
- The illicit economy is metaphorically the size of a G7 country that did not sign on to the United Nations sustainable development goals or the transpacific partnership or will it be in Paris, concerned with the environment.
In this context it is not surprising that the international normative regime which governs the prevention and mitigation of illicit economy is multifaceted and constantly evolving. The variety of actors involved in its implementation at the national, regional and international level is inherently multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder.
Criminal organizations have not only exploited gaps in capacity and policy, they have been ahead of the curve in their use of technology and sophisticated instruments and schemes. They have used the interconnectedness of trade, finance, communication and transportation systems that have effected innovation and growth in the private sector. Indeed, the very forces that enable globalization and that underpin secure, private trans-national commerce are the same as those that now make us less secure.
The international framework in this area is vast and includes the 2003 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and the 2005 United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). UNTOC offers states a framework for preventing and combating organized crime, and a platform for co-operating. UNCAC’s far-reaching approach and the mandatory character of many of its provisions could make it a unique tool for developing a comprehensive response to a global problem. The 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, held in Doha, Qatar, in April 2015, adopted the Doha Declaration. Doha relates back to my earlier point on the drivers of insecurity as it highlighted the way a lack of effective social crime-prevention policies and ineffective criminal justice systems allow crime, terrorism, and violence to hamper social and economic development.
OECD, the EU, Interpol, Europol, OAS, G7/20, WTO and WCO and many other multilateral organization have agreements and protocols that are too numerous to name here.
The need to tackle illicit economy has never been more urgent.
The cost of the illicit economy to the global one is considerable, if difficult to state with absolute precision. Counterfeiting and piracy alone will cost an estimated $1.77 trillion in 2015[i], which is nearly 10% of the global trade in merchandise.[ii]
The benefits of tackling the illicit economy are as compelling for governments and citizens as they are for businesses. Eliminating the illicit trade in tobacco alone could generate annual revenues of up to $31 billion for governments, according to the World Health Organization.[iii]
The cost of the illicit market to human life is even more striking. Sub-standard malaria medicines led to the deaths of over 120,000 children in sub-Saharan countries in 2013,[iv] while globally, an estimated 700,000 people die each year due to counterfeit or fake malaria and tuberculosis medicines. Counterfeit rates across all sectors have historically run as high as 40% and even today are estimated at 17%[vi].
Human trafficking and smuggling is currently front-page news in Europe, but let us not forget that globally, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour, generating illegal profits of at least $150 billion.[vii] This labour force is larger than the entire working population in countries such as Canada and Poland.[viii].
Criminal and terrorist networks profit immensely from the illicit economy.
ISIS is reported to be the world’s richest terrorist organization,[ix] funding itself not only through the illicit trade in oil but also through the sale of “blood antiquities”, extortion and other means.[x]
The Farc and ELN in Colombia have vast illicit networks that will be problematic to eliminate and replace when peacemaking begins in earnest. As we have recently seen Colombia is now back in the lead in terms of acres of Coco cultivation, with criminal groups either taking advantage of peace or preparing for the spoils of crop substitution post peace.
To put this in perspective the illegal trade in wildlife and natural resources is worth up to $213 billion a year[xi], – a sum that surpasses the $135 billion in official development assistance given globally in 2014[xii] – and is funding global terror groups, militias and criminal enterprises..[xiii] But even these figures understate the total value of the proceeds of crime, estimated in 2009 by the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime to be at 3.6% of global GDP, or $2.1 trillion[xiv]. This figure significantly exceeds the 2014 figure for combined global military expenditure, of $1.8 trillion. The nexus between the illicit economy and the new sustainable development goals needs a much more prominent place on the agenda.
INTERPOL recently formed a dedicated ‘Illicit Markets’ sub-crime directorate to provide the world’s law-enforcement agencies with access to expertise in this area, with particular focus on pharmaceutical crime, environmental crime, counterfeits and smuggled goods, as well as stolen vehicles and works of art.
Implications for the global agenda for combating the illicit economy
- Assessing the magnitude of illicit markets.
The scale of the illicit economy, because of its secret and illegal nature, is difficult to accurately quantify. But even if precise assessments are elusive, it is nonetheless important to understand orders of magnitude in order to broadly assess impact and to improve the effectiveness and targeting of policy.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Illicit Trade 2012 – 2014 is often cited[xv] as the source that estimates the value of the “shadow economy” at $650 billion, a figure that rises to $2 trillion when money laundering is included.[xvi]
The $650 billion figure is drawn from Global Financial Integrity’s 2011 study, which assessed 12 different types of illicit trade to arrive at the aggregate figure. As the table below illustrates, the data on which these figures were based is clearly outdated. Moreover, the scope of these measures is rather limited. The OECD figures on counterfeiting, for instance, only capture the value of cross-border trade, excluding the significant counterfeit trade within countries such as China. They also measure the trade in tangible goods, but exclude the illicit trade in digital products and online services.
(total $650 billion)
|2011 figures||Sources used by GFI for 2011 study||Years outdated|
|Drug trafficking||$320.0 billion||2005 UNODC World Drug Report[xvii]||10 years|
|Counterfeiting (tangible)||$250.0 billion||2009 OECD Report[xviii]||6 years|
|Human trafficking||$31.6 billion||2005 ILO Report[xix]||10 years|
|Illicit oil trade||$10.8 billion||2005 Raymond Baker[xx]||10 years|
|Illicit wildlife trade||$10.0 billion||2009 Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking[xxi]||6 years|
|Fish||$9.5 billion||2010 High Seas Task Force Report[xxii]||5 years|
|Timber||$7.0 billion||2009 Seneca Creek report[xxiii]||6 years|
|Art & cultural property||$6.3 billion||2010 UN Crime Prevention & Criminal Justice[xxiv]||5 years|
|Gold (3 countries only)||$2.3 billion||DRC (2010)[xxv], S. Africa (2008)[xxvi], Peru (2010)[xxvii]||5-7 years|
|Human organs||$1.2 billion||2009 for kidney[xxviii], 2007 estimate for liver||6-8 years|
|Small arms/light weapons||$1.0 billion||2002 Small Arms Survey estimate [xxix]||13 years|
|Diamonds||$0.9 billion||2009 Kimberley Process Statistics[xxx]||6 years|
- Emphasizing the role of business and consumers in the fight against illicit economy
As I said at the outset the illicit economy is becoming increasingly sophisticated, not only in the quality of production and the speed of distribution that can be achieved, but also in the criminal ability to use social networks, online marketplaces, global production chains and the international financial system. Consequently questions have been raised about the extent of responsibility of business and consumers for illicit activities conducted either within their platform and operations or within the global production and retail chain. These include:
- Traditional banks: Chinese state-owned banks have been named as “conduits”[xxxi] for counterfeiters, while big US banks such as Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo have been cited as “financial conduits”[xxxii] for the human smuggling industry.
- Online Marketplaces: INTERPOL has been coordinating operations with its member states against the online sale of illicit medicines. The result has been the closure of thousands of bogus websites and the seizure of millions of fake medicines. However, online marketplace Alibaba faces pressure from the Chinese government[xxxiii] as well as brand owners like Kering[xxxiv] to fight the sale of counterfeit goods on its e-commerce platform, and Etsy is facing an investor class-action suit amid allegations it has as many as 2 million items for sale that could be counterfeit or in violation of trademark laws[xxxv]. Iran, meanwhile, is suspected by sanctions officials to have used online marketplaces to build up its nuclear programme[xxxvi]. It has been reported that “virtually every dual-use item needed for a proliferator to produce nuclear weapons is advertised for sale on Alibaba”[xxxvii].
- Online advertising: Google has agreed to pay $250 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit over years-old charges that it knowingly accepted advertisements from illegal online pharmacies[xxxviii], while an Internet safety group has accused YouTube[xxxix] of failing to block videos selling stolen credit card data and profiting from legitimate advertisements running beside them. An International Fund for Animal Welfare study into the online trade in endangered animals and animal parts reported finding more than 33,000 animals or parts for sale in more than 9,000 online ads in 280 online marketplaces,[xl] including Craiglist[xli].
- Social networks: People smugglers in North Africa are using Facebook and other social networks to recruit migrants from across the Middle East and Africa.[xlii]
- Electronics producers: The US Securities and Exchange Commission estimates that 6,000 manufacturers and 480,000 suppliers were potentially affected by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act rules on conflict minerals, but only 1,292 companies filed reports in response.[xliii]
III. Mapping governance gaps and best practice
In tackling the illicit economy, governments are constrained not only by the resources needed to enforce the law but also by having to operate within their own national borders. Governments have a difficult time collaborating with other governments when their laws, policies, and interests vary. At the global level, there is room for better coordination among international organizations, several of which, such as INTERPOL,[xliv] have limited budgets. There is a huge opportunity for all key actors to share innovative approaches and best practice, and to map gaps in governance.
6 examples of this are;
- International governance gaps, which include:
- Internet: With an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 illegal sites selling drugs, law enforcers say the web administrator the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers(ICANN) should do more to combat this trade; ICANN, however, says its powers are limited.[xlv]
- Sea: International laws prevent enforcement officers from boarding foreign vessels to investigate illegal fishing outside a nation’s 200-mile exclusion zone. They can board a ship if they believe it is without nationality, but cannot prosecute over crimes alleged to have taken place beyond their jurisdiction.[xlvi]
- Adherence to international protocols and agreements
- Illicit tobacco trade: The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) entered into force 10 years ago and has been ratified by 180 countries; although FCTC parties adopted a protocol on the illicit tobacco trade in 2012, only six countries have ratified it.[xlvii] INTERPOL recently published its ‘Tobacco Control Legal Toolkit Handbook’ to raise awareness of international conventions and the legal remedies available to national authorities combatting the illicit tobacco trade.
- Money laundering: In the European Union (EU), central registers will be set up listing the beneficiary owners of companies and trusts[xlviii]. Britain, France, Denmark and the Netherlands plan to demand full public disclosure of company beneficiary owners. The deal is awaiting formal sign-off by national governments.[xlix] These demands go beyond what was agreed by the leaders of the Group of 20 largest economies in November 2014. Meanwhile, the Financial Action Task Force,[l] the global standard-setting body to counter money-laundering and the funding of terrorism, has singled out the countries it says are failing to meet international standards.
- In March 2015, a 2012 Executive Order took effect in the US, requiring government contractors to make sure their supply chains did not include forced labourers.[li]
- False invoicing to evade tax must be recognized as part of illicit trade
The mechanisms used to evade tax tend to be the same as those used to shift the proceeds of other illegal activity across international borders. Keeping records of company ownership, as described above, will help curtail both tax evasion and other aspects of illegal trade. Automatic exchange of tax information across borders is another important tool in combating tax evasion. Country-by-country reporting of financial results by multinational corporations, an issue being addressed by the EU, will also help curb tax evasion. The High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa has identified mis-invoicing for the purpose of commercial tax evasion as by far the major mechanism for shifting money out of the continent, a process which stifles economic prosperity and undermines national and regional security. The panel recommends that all African countries and, by implication, all developing countries, should publish real-time world market trade-pricing data, so that imports and exports can be checked for proper pricing, a move which would significantly reduce tax evasion and, therefore, limit the movement of money from other forms of illegal trade.
- Contrasting regulatory regimes and identifying effective practices
It is illuminating to compare and contrast track-and-trace regulatory regimes across countries and industries.
- Tobacco: A comparative analysis of the interventions adopted by countries to control illicit tobacco trade yields not only insights into the array of technological applications and the evolution of policy, but also highlights effectiveness and success rates in different markets.[lii]
- Pharmaceuticals: Markets such as China, India, South Korea, Brazil, the United States and Europe are in the process of adopting drug traceability regimes. A comparative study looking at the technical requirements in each country, and the pace and scope of implementation, could serve as a guide not only for other countries but also for multinational companies.
- Extrapolating stakeholder maps and overlaying alliances
In addition to mapping the involvement of international organizations, private/business associations and key non-government organizations, it would be beneficial to expand stakeholder maps to reflect the role of non-traditional stakeholders and alliances. For example, on 2 December 2014, Pope Francis and 11 other religious leaders made a united call for an end to slavery by 2020 through education, funding and legal reform.[liii] Philanthropists are also playing a more visible role in this space. Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, for instance, have created a fund to help countries defend themselves against litigation by tobacco firms.[liv]
- Identifying areas of regulatory arbitrage
There are many long-standing examples of regulatory arbitrage, including the sale of “illicit whites”[lv] in the underground tobacco industry, but the synthetic drug market is home to some of the most alarming instances of this practice. Laboratory-produced chemical compounds that mimic the effects of popular recreational drugs but that are not yet controlled by international drug conventions are being sold as “legal highs”.[lvi] The rapid emergence of these drugs has forced authorities to play regulatory catch-up to such an extent that the United Kingdom is considering a blanket ban on new psychoactive drugs, rather than banning the drugs one by one.[lvii] Many of these substances are being produced legally in China[lviii] and sold cheaply online; in the US, the Drug Enforcement Authority “can’t keep up with regulating the drugs, essentially because the research labs in China can change the structure of the chemical and create new versions”.[lix]
- Harnessing technology to fight illicit trade
The Illicit economy has long been considered to be something of a parallel universe, with illegal underground markets for everything that is legitimately sold in the global economy. This is truer today than ever before, with the emergence of illicit e-commerce that is “almost as easy as ordering from Amazon or eBay”.[lx] In just one year, the number of illegal drug listings on the Dark Web or Dark Net — the anonymous portion of the Internet — rose from 20,000 to 47,000.[lxi] Dark Web marketplaces require specialized technology, software such as Tor, allowing people to browse the Web while hiding their identities, and a crypto-currency such as Bitcoin that lets them transact their business discreetly.[lxii] Moreover, these Dark Web sites are innovating, introducing search engines, “trending” searches, user ratings and customer-service buttons.[lxiii]
However, technological innovations are also being harnessed in the fight against illicit economy, and some are showing considerable promise. Examples include:
- Big data to uncover sex traffickers. Thomson Reuters Foundation and New York prosecutors worked with financial institutions to use data to uncover sex traffickers.[lxiv]
- Satellite tracking to tackle illegal fishing. Backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, project ‘Eyes on the Seas’ uses a “Virtual Watch Room”,[lxv] a digital platform capable which monitors waters across the world’s oceans and can be accessed remotely by governments.
- Big data to map deforestation. To track illegal deforestation, Global Forest Watch was created as an online platform combining satellite images, high-tech data processing and crowd-sourcing, to provide near-real-time data on the world’s forests.[lxvi]
- Drones for monitoring. Drones can be used not only to monitor environmental crimes, but also track illegal mining activities and trafficking of humans, wildlife and drugs.
- DNA analysis. DNA analysis is being used to detect food fraud[lxvii] based on a genetic library of all life on Earth. DNA analysis is also being deployed to combat the illegal wildlife trade, with forensic laboratories set up to link stolen ivory to specific animals.[lxviii]
[iv] A study from a special issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene published April 2015 as cited in the New York Times editorial, “Stemming the Tide of Fake Medicines,” 18 May 2015 Link
[xi] United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol, “The Environmental Crime Crisis” 2014, Link also cited in VICE News 26 June 2014, “The Illicit Wildlife and Resource Trade Is Financing Militias and Terrorists” Link
[xviii] OECD “Magnitude of Counterfeiting and Piracy of Tangible Products: An Update.”
[xix] Belser, Patrick, “Force Labor and Human Trafficking: Estimating the Profits,” ILO, March 2005.
[xx] Baker, Raymond, “Capitalism’s Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free-Market System” (Hoboken: Wiley, 2005), 167.
[xxi] GFI Interview with Hollis Cummers, Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) Director, June 12, 2009
[xxii] High Seas Task Force, “Closing the net: Stopping illegal fishing on the high seas,” Governments of Australia, Canada, Chile, Namibia,
New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, WWF, IUCN and the Earth Institute at Columbia University (2006): 18 Link
[xxiii] “’Illegal’ Logging and Global Wood Markets: The Competitive Impacts on the U.S. Wood Products Industry.” Seneca Creek Associates, LLC and Wood Resources International (November 2009) p. 4, Link
[xxiv] Idriss, Manar, Manon Jendly, Jacqui Karn, and Massimiliano Mulone, “International Report on Crime Prevention and Community Safety: Trends and Perspectives,” International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, 2010, pg. 52.
[xxvi] Hurd, Emma, “Sky Exclusive: Cops And Gold Smugglers,” Sky News, February 27, 2008.
[xxvii] Morante, Thor, “Illegal gold mining destroying Peru’s Madre de Dios jungle.”
[xxviii] Interlandi, Jeneen, “Not Just Urban Legend,” Newsweek, January 10, 2009
[xxix] Stohl, Rachel, “Fighting the Illicit Trafficking of Small Arms,” Center for Defense Information (13 May 2005)
[xxx] “Annual Summary Charts: 2008,” Kimberley Process: Rough Diamond Statistics. Kimberley Process.
[xliv] Interpol has an annual budget of roughly $75 million, which was increased through donations from the tobacco industry.
[lv] “Illicit whites are cigarettes that may be produced legally but, as KPMG puts it, are “typically not sold legally anywhere and are often made exclusively for smuggling” as cited in BBC News, 23 January 2015, “The cigarettes that worry tobacco firms,” Link