On the 12th of May, British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the world’s first ever Anti-Corruption Summit in London. Prior to the event itself, at a pre-summit reception, David Cameron was overheard telling the Queen Elizabeth II and the Archbishop of Canterbury that Afghanistan and Nigeria, two of the most ‘fantastically corrupt’ countries in the world, would be in attendance at the summit. These unguarded comments, picked up by an open microphone, were seized upon as a diplomatic gaffe, but were also interesting because they revealed a tremendous amount of hypocrisy at the heart of the entire discourse around corruption, particularly in the context of the Panama Papers and the revelations that have been made about the lengths the rich and powerful have gone to obscure their financial affairs.

The hypocrisy of David Cameron’s comments was best articulated by the newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who responded by pointing out how $37 billion of funds embezzled from Nigeria had been laundered and subsequently circulated through the extensive and complex system of tax havens over which Britian presides. After all, globally tax havens are said to be home to an estimated $30 trillion worth of wealth, with almost half of this amount coming from the developing world alone, and it is British tax havens that provide the bulk of the financial services and secrecy that facilitate this massive accumulation and movement of wealth. Indeed, the Panama Papers themselves demonstrate how British tax havens like the Virgin Islands remain the top destination for money moving offshore.

A similar point was also raised by the Afghan delegation attending the Anti-Corruption Summit when they pointed out the presence of ‘fantastic’ levels of corruption did not seem to deter Britain and other Western countries from investing billions of dollars in post-war reconstruction, and that a lot of contemporary Afghan corruption could in fact be traced to the deeply problematic legacy of the state-building following the US invasion of the country in 2001.Highlighting the disingenuous nature of David Cameron’s remarks is important because it shows how the problem of ‘corruption’, exemplified in this instance by the shady world of offshore financial transactions, is one that goes beyond traditional national borders and state structures. While it would be absolutely correct to point out how national leaders around the developing world have often used their positions to enrich themselves and their cronies, it would also be necessary to recognise that the systematic pillaging of developing world economies by a predatory elite has been facilitated by the existence of tax havens actively protected and promoted by countries like the United Kingdom.

Originally set up to spur investment in business by offering reduced rates of taxation, and as a means through which expensive colonial possessions could develop financial services through which to pay for themselves and the rest of the Empire, Britain’s tax havens continue to serve as a means through which corporations and individuals around the world can squirrel their money away from public scrutiny and accountability – all while generating yet more revenue and profit for Britain and its banks. This, coupled with repeated demonstrations of how Britain and other Western countries feel little compunction about dealing with manifestly corrupt regimes when their political and economic interests coincide, illustrates how the West, for all its smugness about corruption in the rest of the world, can hardly claim to have clean hands.The hypocrisy surrounding the debate on corruption was also on display in Brazil this week when President Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first female leader and a former Marxist guerilla who endured torture at the hands of the military junta that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, was impeached by the Senate for allegedly manipulating economic data as part of her bid to secure a second term for herself in the elections of 2014.

While not accused of corruption herself – defined primarily in terms of misappropriating public money – Rousseff had presided over a period of worsening economic conditions, and was seen as being emblematic of wider-scale corruption involving elements of the Workers’ Party (PT) that has ruled Brazil since 2002.Rousseff herself has argued that the campaign against her amounts to little more than a democratic coup orchestrated by right-wing parties and organizations that have been implacably opposed to the PT and its social democratic agenda since it first came to power. Many observers agree that there is some truth to Rousseff’s claims, and also point out one of the great ironies of the current situation in Brazil, namely the way in which many of those who have taken the lead in criticizing and undermining Rousseff have themselves been accused of corruption. For example Vice-President Michal Temer, who will head an interim government while Rousseff is put on trial, himself faces impeachment proceedings for alleged financial misdeeds, and the same is true for several people who he has appointed to his cabinet.

The hypocrisy at work in Brazil is self-evident, and it has rightly been argued that the move to impeach Dilma Rousseff has also served to deflect attention away from the more pervasive and, indeed, systemic corruption that characterizes Brazil’s political system. There are important lessons here for Pakistan. As the PTI, PPP, and other opposition parties ramp up their campaign against Nawaz Sharif and his family in the wake of the Panama revelations, it would be useful to consider the broader issues that are at stake. For one, corruption of the sort unveiled by the Panama Papers occupies a quasi-legal space that has been deliberately constructed and maintained as means through which the global elite can consolidate its economic power. Nawaz Sharif and his family may or may not have acquired their money illegally, but it is certainly the case that in setting up offshore companies and accounts to hold their wealth, they have not done anything differently from thousands of powerful and wealthy individuals around the world.

Tax avoidance and evasion are legal, if unethical, and it is imperative that the opportunity created by the Panama Papers be used to question not just the tax affairs of a few individuals, but also the entire global system that allows the rich to get richer even as the poor are subjected to lower wages and ever-increasing austerity. Secondly, while many would experience tremendous schadenfreude at the news that Imran Khan himself owned an offshore company used to purchase a flat in London in 1983, crowing about his financial affairs is ultimately as meaningless as focusing solely on Nawaz Sharif. As recent events in Brazil show, attacking an individual leader amounts to very little if few questions are asked broader systems of corruption. It is no secret that the Panama Papers have implicated leaders from across Pakistan’s political spectrum, and that those who are accusing Nawaz Sharif of malfeasance could themselves be asked the same questions they are asking of him. Some of the analysis of the Panama papers in Pakistan argues that targeting Nawaz Sharif represents a threat to the democratic order in this country.

There may be a kernel of truth to this notion, given Pakistan’s history in this regard, but it also places too little emphasis on the need to develop robust systems of accountability as part of the process of creating a more substantive democracy. As Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif is ultimately answerable to the people of Pakistan and should be made to explain his financial affairs through the use of appropriate constitutional mechanisms. However, the same is true for his detractors who already occupy, or aspire to occupy, positions of state power. Reducing the entire discussion to the alleged misdeeds of one person flies in the face of the ‘across-the-board’ accountability that the opposition is demanding, and does little to strengthen the institutions – legal and bureaucratic – that would be required to reform the system as a whole.