Research analysis by Roberto Martínez B. Kukutschka
The United Nations recognises that democracy is the best way to bring about international peace, and research has proven that democratic countries do not go to war against each other. But right now, democracy is backsliding around the world – and corruption is one of its greatest antagonists.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 exemplified how corrupt authoritarian regimes threaten international peace, security and economic stability. After his return to power in 2012, Vladimir Putin embarked on a campaign to remove all constitutional checks on his authority. Under his leadership, the Russian government has successfully weakened the autonomous political institutions, organisations and individuals that could constrain Putin’s power or hold him accountable, cracked down on political opponents, passed new legislation that limits the space for civil society, banned almost all independent media and chased opponents into exile. At the same time, favouritism in the allocation of public contracts, licenses and concessions, kickbacks and other corrupt schemes helped a small group of oligarchs amass great fortunes that largely depend on their loyalty to the regime.
In short, corruption facilitated the consolidation of autocracy in Russia, and once Putin was firmly entrenched in power, he had a free hand to pursue whatever policies he wanted – including war – with little opposition from domestic political and economic elites. Such blurred lines between business and politics in the country explain the lack of public opposition to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine even after several rounds of sanctions that have weakened the Russian economy.
How do countries measure up on corruption in the public sector?Corruption Perceptions Index 2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is perhaps the most extreme example of the dangers that serious corruption and weak checks on power at the domestic level can ultimately pose to international peace and security. Corruption, however, can also be used in much less obvious ways to destabilise a country. There are several historical examples of colonial and postcolonial powers deliberately corrupting the leaders of lands they sought to control. In the past few years, countries like Russia (28), Iran (25) and Qatar (58) have also exploited domestic loopholes in anti-corruption and government integrity systems to: weaken political actors that threaten their interests; advance foreign policy goals; and undermine the people’s trust in the government and institutions of the target country.
This poses a significant threat even for countries with high levels of public integrity and effective anti-corruption controls. While the threats might come from abroad, the vulnerabilities – including loopholes in lobbying, political finance and conflicts of interest regimes – are often home-grown and require action at the national level. Even countries at the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) need to look critically at their anti-corruption frameworks. These countries need to fully implement their international anti-corruption commitments and close the loopholes in their financial systems which help foreign actors – from corrupt politicians to organised crime leaders – hide their ill-gotten gains and undermine democracy. They also need to prioritise transparency of asset ownership, especially companies, trusts and real estate.
While the examples above show how domestic levels of corruption can become a source of regional or global instability or make a country vulnerable to undue influence from foreign actors, most of the research on the links between conflict and corruption highlights the destabilising effects of corruption within national borders. It is well documented that conflict creates new opportunities for bribery, rent-seeking and theft of public resources. In turn, corruption can also fuel conflict by:
- generating new or stimulating existing grievances in society that fuel violence
- weakening the capacity of the state to protect its citizens from threats like organised crime and terrorism, including by limiting the effectiveness of defence, security and law enforcement institutions
- undermining trust in government and the legitimacy of the state, which limits the state’s ability to mediate emerging conflicts and credibly enforce negotiated agreements
Cross-country studies have also found that anti-corruption is as important as a country’s bureaucratic capacity in preventing the outbreak of civil war. Transparent and accountable governments that enact policies to benefit society at large instead of the narrow interests of a few tend to be better at keeping the peace within their national borders.
Corruption as fuel for conflict and social unrest
Despite its well-documented negative effects, corruption is hard to eradicate, partly because not everyone is equally affected by it. While some parts of society – often the most vulnerable ones – suffer from inefficient or non-existent public services, other groups may benefit from the corrupt status quo through kickbacks, handouts, lucrative government contracts or privileged access to policy-makers. When corruption is systemic, public resources are constantly diverted away from projects, policies and services that serve the common good and benefit the public at large to favour specific groups and interests instead.
Corruption thus creates conditions in which conflict is more likely to occur by fostering division between different groups and eating away at the rule of law. It also fuels the kind of state capture that generates hostility among excluded groups, providing incentives for opposition factions to violently contest state resources and the regime to aggressively persecute opponents. This is particularly dangerous when the resulting disparities coincide with ethnic, religious or other identity lines. Corruption, exclusion and outright discrimination thus increase the risk of violent outbreaks and make them harder to control once they erupt.
In addition, theft, embezzlement and mismanagement of public funds reduce the quantity of public resources available for redistribution and undermine the quality and availability of public services. This makes it harder to tackle poverty, hunger and inequality, while providing good healthcare and education. Corruption is thus widely recognised as a key obstacle to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Figure 1: Corruption and security threats
Source: Transparency International’s CPI 2022 and the Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index 2022
This figure shows the association between corruption, as measured by the CPI, and the presence of security threats to a state – such as bombings, attacks and battle-related deaths, rebel movements, mutinies, coups or terrorism – as captured by the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. Countries with high CPI scores generally face fewer violent threats. In contrast, where corruption is rampant, the threats of violence and potential for conflict are much higher. The case of Mali (28), which has lost seven points on the CPI since 2015, exemplifies this relationship: while corruption is not necessarily an active driver of the conflict, the divisions behind the violence have been reinforced by years of rent-seeking, mismanagement and indifference to the plight of certain groups in Malian society. Furthermore, the grievances that terrorist groups have proved adept at exploiting, stem largely from corruption.
The expression of social discontent can also take the form of peaceful protest. The Carnegie Endowment’s Global Protest Tracker has documented social protests in 130 countries since 2017. In 55 of these countries at least one protest was driven by the people’s discontent with the levels of corruption in government. Unsurprisingly, 80 per cent of the corruption-related protests occurred in countries with CPI scores below 50.
The case of Iran, which has been stagnant on the CPI at its historical minimum of 25 for the past three years illustrates this point: tensions in the country had been building as a result of the economic crisis, the impact of international sanctions and grievances over corruption. The death of Mahsa Amini served as a catalyst for protests by women’s rights activists and frustrated citizens. While the sexist laws and the unjust treatment of women in the country were at the core of the protests, the declining living conditions and corruption in government further fuelled the anti-government messaging. As summarised by Human Rights Watch, "in a country with mass repression, unfree elections and apparent corruption and mismanagement, Iran’s autocracy rules with all that remains: brute force". The violent government crackdown on protestors has resulted in over 450 civilian casualties and at least 17 people being condemned to death and four executed already.
Corruption weakens the capacity of the state to protect its citizens and respond to threats
Corruption can deprive the very institutions in charge of protecting citizens, enforcing the rule of law and guarding the peace of the resources they need to fulfil that mandate. The fact that nearly two thirds of the countries assessed by the Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) face high to critical risks of corruption in their defence sectors is especially worrying. The generous exceptions to transparency and accountability often granted to defence budgets and expenditures on the grounds of national security remain an obstacle for effective oversight and anti-corruption efforts in these institutions.
Furthermore, where law enforcement agencies or the security services are plagued by corruption, state responses to governance challenges and security threats are likely to be ineffective or even partisan. In some cases, criminal and terrorist groups are even aided by the complicity of corrupt public officials, law enforcement authorities, judges and politicians, which allows them to thrive and operate with impunity. Corruption is thus one of the major enabling factors of organised crime.
The below figure shows that countries with high levels of corruption are less resilient to the effects of organised crime. As explained by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime in their Global Organized Crime Index, countries with high levels of perceived corruption are very likely to also have low levels of resilience to crime due to the negative effects that corruption has on the institutions, frameworks and mechanisms needed to combat it effectively.
Figure 2: Relationship between corruption and resilience to organised crime
Source: Transparency International’s CPI 2022 and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime’s Global Organized Crime Index 2021
High levels of corruption in the police, for example, lead citizens to mistrust them, resulting in the public reporting less crime and a reduced willingness to assist the police in combating crime. Police corruption can thus lead to higher crime rates and lower crime clearance rates. Of particular concern is police collusion with organised criminals, which can take many forms, including tip-offs, active involvement in human, drug or arms trafficking or even contract killing.
Many Latin American countries perfectly exemplify this problem. In countries like Honduras (23), Guatemala (24), Mexico (31) and Peru (36), law enforcement and corrupt officials collaborate with criminal gangs or accept bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye on their activities. Journalists have also documented the influence that organised criminals wield over candidates and politicians, financing electoral campaigns or even running for public office themselves.
Corruption reduces the state’s ability to defuse conflict and keep the peace
Resolving grievances before they turn violent saves lives. In most situations, the parties involved in a conflict would be better off with a bargained outcome that spares them the human and economic costs of fighting. The government’s ability to resolve disagreements through dialogue, mediation and negotiation, however, largely depends on the trust that citizens and the aggrieved parties have in the officials listening to their demands, objectively assessing them, proposing constructive alternatives and effectively enforcing the outcomes of the negotiations in an impartial manner.
Unfortunately, where corruption is high, the likelihood of the government meeting these expectations is low, as bureaucracies are often politicised, policy-makers are subject to external pressures and enforcement of the law is inconsistent. The strong association between high levels of corruption, as measured by the CPI, and less durable peace, as captured by the Global Peace Index, is thus not surprising: the Central African Republic (24), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (20), Somalia (12), South Sudan (13) and Sudan (22) are five of the ten least peaceful countries according to the index and also rank in the lowest quintile of the CPI. Anti-corruption should thus be a core consideration in peace negotiations as it can help produce more durable and stable outcomes – particularly since accusations of corruption can be weaponised. Mainstreaming anti-corruption in mediation and peace processes could help reduce the high number of negotiated peace agreements that have been documented to fail within a five-year period.
Promoting peace and security through transparency and anti-corruption
The specific anti-corruption reforms that help break the downward spiral of corruption, conflict and violence, and help promote peace instead, depend greatly on the national context and on whether violent conflict has already erupted or not. In general, however, it is important to:
- Close the loopholes that allow for undue influence in the policy-making process, including defence and security decisions. Policies and resource allocation should be determined by fair and public processes. Promoting transparency in the budgetary process and establishing mechanisms to detect and manage conflicts of interest (e.g., through lobbying registers) is essential. This is also necessary to ensure that decisions and expenses around defence and security are in line with the public interest and not biased towards narrow or vested interests.
- Strengthen checks and balances, and promote separation of powers. Avoiding the concentration of decision-making power in just a few hands is important to reduce opportunities for corruption, avoid the discretionary allocation of public resources and prevent the consolidation of autocracy. Anti-corruption agencies and other oversight institutions must therefore have the sufficient resources and independence to perform their duties. Defence and security institutions must also be subject to such oversight and control mechanisms.
- Ensure public access to government information. Governments must ensure that the public receives accessible, timely and meaningful information, including on public spending and resource distribution. When it comes to defence and security information, exemptions based on national security are necessary, but there is a need for clear and rigorous guidelines for withholding information to prevent abuses that can lead to excessive, unnecessary or ineffective spending.
- Integrate anti-corruption, peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts. The assumption that peace processes are to prioritise stability – with justice, accountability and anti-corruption coming later – ignores the fact that the short-term goal of ending open violence can exacerbate corruption and undermine opportunities for peace in the medium to long term.
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