Is it a coincidence that many conflicts break out in countries where the impact of corruption is corrosive? Behind corruption there are often numerous breaks to the rules that agents of the state should follow but which they violate when pursuing their private interests.
If corruption is endemic, public officials, both bureaucrats and elected officials, may redesign programs and propose public projects with few public benefits and many opportunities for private profit. Thus corruption, in the sense of bribes, pay-offs and kickbacks can be conducive for government failure.
Generally speaking, corruption is an important cause of conflict, weakening the government and causing grievances and discontent.
Corruption in context
Corruption is the “misuse of public power for private or political gain” and has a deleterious impact on economic growth, equitable wealth distribution and the legitimacy and efficiency of governing institutions. Such impact is aggravated when corrupt practices have no concern for the long-term sustainability of the economic sector, or fail to reinvest its proceeds in the community or country, thereby ‘bleeding’ the economy.
In some cases, as happened in Ghana and in Burkina Faso, the new rulers may indeed effectively fight corruption with the support of the majority of the population. But past real or alleged corruption could even motivate new totalitarian regimes to conduct vast purges against the ‘corrupt classes’, such as in revolutionary China and Cambodia, with a dramatic impact on societies.
Additionally, political change can degenerate into unstructured conflicts characterized by widespread violence and diffuse authority as the new leadership is unable to retain control over key military and business forces leaving many to regret the by-gone ‘corrupt order’.
Corruption and conflicts
While most states have lost the capacity to decide when they wage or end wars, and recurring rebellion and large scale banditry can define a state of chronic instability and insecurity rather than war, war may be intentionally prolonged by belligerents through corrupt practises related to defence contracts and through corruption undermining the efficiency and morale of government armed forces, as was the case in South Vietnam.
In contrast, the absence of corruption on the rebel side can foster its capacity and popular support (e.g. the Khmer Rouge at its beginning, the Eritrean EPLF).
On the one hand, both mechanisms will tend to prolong a war as armed forces develop a vested interest in the continuation of war while their actual capacity to achieve victory decreases. On the other hand, corruption can be successfully used to accelerate victory; the Taliban was for a long time successful in buying out competing groups before it too was toppled by the United States.
Corruption is thus an efficient means for individuals or groups to cope with a political economy of high uncertainty, scarcity and disorder through the proper cultivation of social relations.
Corruption in South Sudan
According to the UN, corruption in Africa remains the “most daunting challenge” to good governance, sustainable economic growth, peace, stability and development. In many corruption perception surveys, Africa is perceived as the most corrupt region in the world, as well as the most underdeveloped and backward region.
A case in point is represented by South Sudan, born amid great hope. The citizens of the world’s newest nation voted with one voice in support of independence for a country that boasted vast natural wealth. Goodwill from the international community brought significant international development assistance and the country was expected to quickly transition to self reliance, for the most part, on the basis of its own oil revenues.
But the ruling elite diverted oil revenues to fund patronage networks through defence sector expenditures. The country’s kleptocratic regime controlled all sectors of the economy, and squandered a historic chance for the development of a functional state. For a few years, the patronage system worked in South Sudan: loyalty was bought and violence kept in check, but a global decline in oil prices led to decreasing production and lower revenues. Within a year, civil war and a humanitarian crisis hit the country.
In the current civil war, much of the conflict is driven by elites attempting to re-negotiate their share of the politico-economic power balance through violence thus causing economic collapse and a creeping international isolation.
Corruption in Afghanistan and Iraq
Corruption contributed to the failings of international interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq by making much more difficult for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) (2003-2014) to achieve its key mission goals, from security to effective governance, thus driving Taliban recruitment in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, corruption in army recruitment and promotions, the existence of ghost soldiers, and theft of weapons and supplies rendered the army – superior on paper – ill-armed, under-manned, and ultimately unable to halt the rise of ISIS/Daesh. To stop the jihadi fighters, international troops had to return to Iraq a couple of years after the previous training mission was concluded.
And yet, even when corruption is acknowledged as a strategic challenge, this recognition is rarely translated into specific guidelines and tools that could protect international engagement from corruption risk. Operations bring in significant amounts of resources, but if planners and implementers are not careful, these resources can be diverted and misused by corrupt networks and spoilers profiting from chaos and instability.
In Afghanistan corruption prevents money and services from being delivered to the population and, in many cases, corrupt officials actually take money from the people in the form of bribes. Corruption also promotes impunity and fuels anger over injustice by enabling powerful and predatory leaders to buy their way out of accountability for crimes they have committed. If the Afghan government is seen by a majority of people as taking more from corruption than it gives in the form of justice and security, then it will lose popular support in favour of tribal or Taliban leaders who can deliver both better.
The Afghan government has not developed administrative or judicial institutions to manage these resources transparently, which in turn creates large opportunities for elites to enrich themselves at the expense of the country. The Afghan police and court system are also part of the problem because they are often corrupt themselves or at least have no power to punish powerful figures who have stolen from the State. Fixing corruption in Afghanistan will be a long and difficult task. But it must start at the top, by removing senior officials that are responsible for the largest corrupt abuse.
International institutions, governments, donors, aid workers, and peace builders must realize that corruption has very high costs for society, but particularly in states emerging from conflict by preventing the development of effective institutions of governance. When money and resources available to government are diverted by corrupt officials instead of being channelled for the benefit of citizens, this can create further instability. In these ways, corruption, governance, and conflict are all linked. But, corruption exists everywhere in some form, at many different levels, and can be pervasive in some societies: gift-giving to officials may be expected in one country and prohibited by law in another.
Corruption creates a system whereby money and connection determines who has access to public services and who receives favourable treatment. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, called corruption an “insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies,” and added that “it diverts funds intended for development, undermines the ability of governments to provide basic services, feeds inequalities and injustice, and discourages foreign aid investment.”
In unstable countries, a form of corruption occurs when politicians buy votes in order to get elected and, once in office, engage in corrupt practices to cement their rule. But even in stable democracies it is not uncommon for legislators to use their positions of power to reward their financial supporters with favours, the awarding of contracts, or the drafting of new laws.
“Corruption is costing the developing world billions of dollars every year,” indicates the UN Development Program. It siphons off scarce resources and diminishes a country’s prospects for development. Corruption often leads to the diversion of scarce public resources to uneconomic high-profile projects, such as big office complexes and shopping centres, to the exclusion of necessary infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals, water treatment plants, and roads.
Corruption and the growth of violent extremism may also create organisations, including ISIS, taking advantage of corruption in their efforts to recruit and retain disillusioned members, even as they use corrupt practices to channel funds and smuggle arms, drugs, and people. Corruption also can dramatically weaken state institutions, rendering them ineffective in the face of the threat from extremist groups.
Another societal cost is that corruption is linked to the development of organized crime, including the involvement of criminal syndicates in money laundering and trafficking in people and drugs. In Colombia, for example, narcotics trafficking has been the source of much of the country’s corruption at high levels. Alliances existed between politicians and the illegal armed groups that made money off of a lucrative trade in cocaine, and wanted to see their business continue.
Corruption could thus create an appealing atmosphere for crimes and conflicts because of two main reasons: on the one hand, it sustains circumstances of impunity which only further encourage crimes and, on the other hand, the impunity on crime may encourage citizens to take the law into their own hands in attempts to effect jungle justice, which could further lead to conflicts and crime.
If government performance does not improve in many states, programs designed to help the poor, improve the natural environment, and stimulate economic growth will have little impact and risk inflicting harm. Only specific reforms can obtain gains by reducing corruption and improving governance.
A weak state or one with high levels of corruption will be unlikely to manage aid well and so will get less. A state that does receive aid must comply with financial reporting requirements to assure that the funds are not lost to corruption and waste. Institutional reform and projects that are directly focused on improved governance are the key to success.
The best mixture seems to be broad-based decisions about which countries to support with some share of aid taking the form of grants to improve government performance. Outsiders would supply technical assistance by providing the details of government operations.
In contrast, policies which try to isolate corrupt countries and individuals from the international community encourage their rulers to descend into paranoia and isolation and are ineffective ways to help the citizens of these countries who are the real victims of corruption, thus dividing the world into rich and poor blocs.
In states that are transitioning from one form of governance to another or are trying to recover from violent conflict, corruption is detrimental and, trying to root it out too abruptly may lead to more violence and instability. Then again, if corruption is allowed to fester in those societies, strong and effective governance can be difficult to establish and social and economic development will be hindered.
What is badly needed all over the world is to prevent “homo sapiens sapiens” from turning into “homo accipiens accipiens”, a predator robbing and exploiting others for gain.
International/regional organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union have the capacity and the duty to intervene so as to help citizens to be able to trust their governing institutions and governing institutions to provide the security and services that citizens need.
by Giorgio SPAGNOL