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The UN and Transnational Organized Crime

July 16, 2012

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime officially launched a new campaign today to raise global awareness about the corrosive effects of transnational organized crime.  Among other statistics released to underscore the point, the UNODC touted their estmate that the annual proceeds from various forms of criminal enterprise bring home somewhere in the neighborhood $870 billion to the world’s bad actors. Not only are the sums of money huge, the UNODC warns, but crime is all pervasive. “Transnational organized crime reaches into every region, and every country across the world. Stopping this transnational threat represents one of the international community’s greatest global challenges.”

This is all well and good, or bad, as the case may be.  But before the army of Chicken Littles comes marching out of the gates to announce impending doom about to befall the international system, it might be worth briefly considering the UN’s spotty history with crime estimates. It wasn’t all that long ago, for example, that the UN bandied about the fact that they believed annual income from illicit dealings was knocking around the area of $500 billion. The stat gained considerable currency as it was unwittingly repeated by reporters and other interested parties who simply assumed that UN estimates must be grounded in some reliable evidence.

Not quite.  As the Canadian economic historian RT Naylor discovered, the $500 billion figure was invented from thin air by a UN representative that needed a number to satisfy stats-hungry reporters at a press conference.  And then there’s the question of the methods that produce such figures. Big figures like this tend to imply that huge proceeds stream upwards to a shadowy contingent of transnational crime bosses.  And to a degree, this is likely true. Yet, if the estimates are based on the final market value of the various commodities under consideration–guns, drugs, diamonds, people–and we assume that the final cost reflects mark-up prices at each stage of the production and shipment chain, it’s likely the case that the proceeds get fairly well-distributed at each level–an assumption which suggests the problem is both more deeply rooted than we tend to acknowledge but also less threatening to the integrity of the system as a whole, as many would have us believe.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that the UNODC isn’t doing good work. They are. And it’s good to see that the language of this latest initiative  reflects their sensitivity to the true victims of transnational crime: vulnerable people at the most local of levels. At the same time, I’d argue that we need to be vigilantly skeptical about the production and deployment of estimate statistics, especially in an area like transnational crime where solid data is nearly impossible to collect. Otherwise we run the risk of developing and obscured understanding of the nature of the problem which almost guarantees than any remedy will ultimately miss the mark.

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