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Secret budgets + massive contracts: Why lawmakers need to keep an eye on the defence sector

The global defence sector is characterised by secret budgets, high-value contracts and a lack of transparency. Together with poor parliamentary controls, the confluence of those features in the sector provides a worrying opportunity for corruption.

Watchdogs banding graphic

With this in mind Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme (TI-DSP) launched a new report today called ‘Watchdogs?’ In it we measure legislative oversight of the defence sector in 82 countries worldwide, drawing on results from the 2013 Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index.

By exercising strong and effective oversight over defence policy, procurement and the intelligence services, legislatures can ensure that the government acts in the public interest and hold their state executives to account.

Each legislature was scored in seven distinct categories based on findings from the Government Index and placed in one of six risk bands based on their scores. By assessing transparency and oversight practices related to budget, policy, auditing and intelligence services, the report measures how well legislatures exercise their deliberative, legislative and oversight powers over the defence sector.

Of 82 legislatures, 52 were placed in ‘high’, ‘very high’, and ‘critical’ risk bands, while 14 were placed in the ‘moderate’ risk band and 12 placed into the ‘low’ risk band. Only four legislatures were placed in the ‘very low’ band, the lowest risk rating.

In each of the seven categories surveyed, at least 40 per cent of the included legislatures failed to meet adequate standards of control. Three quarters of those surveyed were found to have external auditing practices of questionable effectiveness, if at all. And defence budgets in 55 per cent of countries were found to entirely lack transparency or include only limited aggregated information. TI-DSP estimates that the global cost of corruption amounts to at least US$20 billion per year. ‘Watchdogs’ shows how legislatures might be inadvertently contributing to this cost and how they can improve.

Most legislatures are failing voters by not acting as proper watchdogs of this huge sector. Whether the problems are due to the political environment, poor legislation, or poor commitment by parliamentarians, the good practice examples in this study can help them improve.”

– Mark Pyman, TI-DSP Director

Along with 19 good practice examples of legislative oversight across the seven categories, the report suggests tools for addressing defence corruption risk and recommends specific actions for legislators, state executives, audit offices and civil society organisations to improve defence oversight. By promoting interaction and collaboration between these four groups, the report encourages legislators to press for constructive change and to empower civil society organisations to demand accountability, raising the bar for defence oversight.

In a recent video interview for TI-DSP, Andrew Feinstein, a former South African MP, spokesman for the Public Accounts Committee in the African National Congress, and whistleblower in the South African Arms Deal, spoke frankly about the need to improve legislative oversight of the defence sector:

Legislative oversight of defence has been neglected for too long at the expense of the well-being of citizens. By showing parliamentarians how they can improve, this report is an important step in overcoming this historical neglect of defence oversight”

– Andrew Feinstein (see the full video interview)

The assessments, tools and recommendations in this report offer practical ways for legislators, civil society organisations and executives to strengthen defence oversight and address defence corruption risks. Citizens deserve to have accountable and effective legislatures that represent and protect public interests.

It should never be acceptable for legislators to be toothless lap dogs coddled by the defence industry, the military or even the state executive. The people deserve watchdogs.


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