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St. Pete Conference on World Affairs begins four-day, international event

Mark Parker

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Renowned journalist, author and former military advisor Sarah Chayes delivered Tuesday night's keynote address on corruption in world affairs to kick off the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. Screengrab.

The St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (SPCWA) held its opening ceremony at the historic Palladium Theater Tuesday night, featuring an introduction by Mayor Ken Welch and a keynote speech by renowned journalist, author and former military advisor Sarah Chayes.

While the Palladium hosted the conference’s opening night, SPCWA brought its consortium of experts to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg for events through Friday. As with the rest of the conference, an international audience attended Tuesday’s event both in-person and virtually through a live stream. Jazz guitarist Diego Figueiredo took the Palladium stage following the keynote speech.

Before Chayes’ presentation on how corruption shapes world affairs, Welch explained the characteristics that bring people to St. Petersburg. He said the waterfront, sunrises and sunsets, dining, art and hospitality are all part of the city’s allure.

“But let me talk about why they stay,” Welch added. “St. Petersburg is a global city with a rich local culture that attracts people from around the world, and your presence is a testament to that fact.”

Welch named local assets that provide a global impact, such as the USF College of Marine Science, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration campus and entrepreneurial incubators – like the ARK Innovation Center, which broke ground earlier Tuesday.

Welch said St. Petersburg is working to provide global solutions to address climate change and coastal resiliency, which is part of the conference’s discussions in the coming days. He said that most importantly, the city is a welcoming community that embraces equity.

“These are core values of our city,” said Welch. “Historically, issues of climate change have had disproportionately negative effects on communities of color – impacts on health, wealth and opportunity. We now have a chance to shift the paradigm with the lens of intentional equity, and we are working to ensure that the growth we are experiencing in St. Petersburg results in shared opportunities for everyone to prosper.”

Welch asked those in attendance and watching around the world to consider the city’s assets and what St. Petersburg can bring to a global partnership. He hopes to share knowledge and technologies on a global level, and just before turning the night over to Chayes, Welch asked the international audience to join the city’s residents in saying, “we are St. Pete.”

Chayes kicked off SPCWA’s discussions on world affairs by describing the preponderance of corruption in governments and corporations. Much of the keynote presentation centered on Chayes’ experiences during the extensive amount of time she spent in Afghanistan.

Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan from Kandahar for National Public Radio before serving as a special advisor to two commanders of the international forces in Kabul. She then served as an advisor to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.

Following experiences that would change her life’s trajectory, Chayes quit journalism and formed a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the oldest brother of then-Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. An NGO is often a nonprofit entity, and many promote humanitarian efforts.

After realizing the rampant corruption that existed throughout the NGO and the Afghan government, Chayes launched her own NGO that provided the citizens of Kandahar with jobs. After 10 years in Kandahar, Chayes traveled the world analyzing corruption and authored two books on the subject.

Chayes explained that corruption typically precedes global crises and ties into the other SPCWA themes of climate, equality and migration.

“Let’s take Syria, which devolved into a massive, bloody, horrific civil war, but started out as an anti-corruption protest – just like the others in the Arab Spring,” she said. “Let’s look at Afghanistan – why did the government collapse? Because of its corruption … it was not a government that people felt proud or inspired to fight for.”

Chayes added that inequality is an inherent feature of corrupt systems because corrupt systems focus on capturing infinite wealth for those in positions of power. While the conference uses the term climate, she encouraged listeners to think more broadly about environmental devastation. She said habitat destruction and the unchecked release of greenhouse gasses directly link to corrupt corporations and governments.

Chayes used the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the governments of Brazil and Bolivia as examples.

“It is not through inattention that the Amazon is being burned – it is deliberate deforestation,” she said. “They are largely using it as pasture for livestock for meat. That is what’s happening to the Amazon, and it’s very much the deforesters in cahoots with the government.”

Chayes said it is not individual scandals that pose the gravest threat, it is a system of corruption that intertwines sectors most Americans typically think of separately. For example, she said those in attendance could spend the night debating whether the government or businesses are worse for their health.

She said corrupt networks intertwine business leaders and government officials, and the two often switch roles. Government officials go into business and reap the rewards of policy they helped create, and business leaders go into government to fix the rules in their favor. She said that is especially true in developing countries.

Chayes believes Americans too often dismiss or minimalize corruption. She said the problem often devolves into a partisan issue, “and that’s the way the kleptocrats laugh all the way to the bank.” Chayes encouraged everyone at the Palladium to leave the theater thinking about prioritizing issues that are derivative of corruption and understand it is not simply an accounting issue.

Chayes leads a presentation on corruption in expected and unexpected places tonight, and climate change and conflict Thursday. For more information, visit the SPCWA website here.

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