Anti-Corruption in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Settings

by Rosemary Ventura (MALD ’22) in collaboration with Fletcher’s Program on Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy

Note: For the purposes of this work, the Fares Center includes Afghanistan as part of the greater Middle East.

The anti-corruption field increasingly recognizes the interconnectedness of corruption and conflict, as well as the need for different strategies for controlling corruption in fragile and conflict-affected settings (FCAS). Yet this recognition alone is insufficient for supporting anti-corruption practitioners and donors in designing and implementing programs that are sensitive to the context of fragility and conflict. This research, undertaken with generous funding from The Fares Center, reviewed existing evidence for where anti-corruption strategies in FCAS are most likely to have unintended negative consequences on conflict and fragility. 

The first part of the research reviewed 23 publications to understand key debates and issues for how anti-corruption strategies should be adopted to fragile contexts. The second part identified the risks for negative consequences of anti-corruption on conflict and fragile that are most often discussed. It synthesized these risks into 15 recurring, concise patterns to facilitate their use by policy makers. Notably, most literature in the fragility, conflict, and corruption ‘canon’ is written by scholars and practitioners in North America and Europe about the global South. 

Afghanistan provides an excellent test-case for validating these patterns and the broader framework of conflict-sensitive anti-corruption strategies. The relationship between corruption and conflict has been extensively covered in Afghanistan, given the primacy of corruption in fueling and maintaining grievances against various state and non-state actors. As such, the research used existing literature on anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan over the past 30 years to provide initial validation for certain patterns of the negative unintended consequences on anti-corruption on fragility and conflict. 

Findings: the reviewed literature by leading authors on conflict and corruption contains active debates over the who, when, what, how, and how much corruption should strategies attempt to control in fragile settings. Often this is framed as a trade-off between tackling corruption early after violent conflict ends before corruption becomes further entrenched in political settlements but at the potential risks of destabilizing fragile peace arrangements. The case of Afghanistan strongly influences these debates, given the overwhelming evidence of the longer-term costs to stability, good governance, and sustainable peace of initially ignoring corruption.  

Additionally, there is compelling evidence from Afghanistan for many of the 15 patterns identified in this research of the unintended negative ways anti-corruption programs can exacerbate conflict. One common pattern is that Anti-corruption messaging can be used by political or extremist groups for recruitment. Many authors have discussed this phenomenon in Afghanistan; Sarah Chayes’s 2015 case study in Afghanistan shows how the failure of international actors to prioritize corruption during stabilization efforts actively undermined state-building aims, created enduring grievances, and provided the Taliban with legitimacy and fodder for recruitment. 

Another pattern from the literature is how Anti-corruption efforts can interrupt peace processes and create spoilersPeace processes may turn blind eyes to corruption, so subsequent anti-corruption efforts can threaten peace agreements when they target notoriously corrupt parties to the conflict. Again, there are many instructive examples from Afghanistan, such as in 2005 when the governor of Helmand Province was found with nine tons of opium and heroin in his basement. When pressured by President Karzai (on behalf of anti-corruption coalitions) to resign, he instructed 3,000 of his followers to join the Taliban, massively destabilizing the security situation in that area. This well-intentioned anti-corruption and anti-narcotics efforts exacted an unanticipated toll on the broader conflict context, in large part because it lacked sound analysis of the political context.  

Reflecting broader discussions of trade-offs in when to address various types of corruption, another pattern of risks is how Anti-corruption strategies can disrupt corruption that serves stabilizing purposesJonathan Goodhand beautifully illustrates this phenomenon in his case study of drug-related corruption in Afghanistan. He points to dual effects of corruption in a fragile context: during the 2000s, corruption was stabilizing in North Afghanistan where it cemented political relationships and added to political order; but destabilizing in South Afghanistan where it fueled the combat economy and enabled the Taliban to gain political capital and legitimacy through protecting peasants and traffickers. 

For some of the patterns that emerged from the research, it is clear that substantial additional research is necessary to understand how to mitigate the risks. For example, Anti-corruption strategies may further entrench corruption or cause a shift to more deleterious systems of corruption, undermining future anti-corruption and good governance efforts. Samiullah Hamidee, the founder of an anti-corruption and peacebuilding Civil Society Organization (CSO) in Afghanistan, extensively described the difficulties of fighting the pervasive assumption that all CSOs are only an excuse to get external funding. Previous anti-corruption efforts (as a part of the larger wave of reconstruction and development funding) were seen as a farse put on to secure external funding for connected individuals. Consequently, Hamidee has discussed how, particularly in rural areas, few believe CSOs might be anything more than a corrupt means of making money, further cementing social norms of systemic corruption.  

In an extensive case study of World Bank, EU, and UNDP anti-corruption programs in Afghanistan, Jesper Johnsøn provides strong evidence for the potential harms of another pattern: Anti-corruption programs can overwhelm absorptive capacities in fragile contexts. Again, further research is needed to understand what types of anti-corruption approaches pose the greatest risk for this pattern, and what appropriate measures can be taken to mitigate the risks. 

This research consolidates evidence on negative unintended impacts of anti-corruption efforts on conflict and fragility, a crucial step towards helping program designers and implementers avoid these patterns. One of the challenges to creating more conflict-sensitive anti-corruption programming is the structural silos of the peacebuilding versus anti-corruption fields. Evidence from Afghanistan is particularly useful in illuminating possible relationships between conflict and anti-corruption. Above all, the case of anti-corruption strategies in Afghanistan over the past 20 years shows how corruption is deeply entangled within complex political economic systems. Clearly, strong systems analysis approaches are needed to mitigate the risks of unintentionally doing more harm than good.  

Findings from this research will be published on CJL’s blog and will support the development of an online course hosted by a leading anti-corruption organization. 

About the Author

With support from the Fares Center, Rosemary is working on research with Professors Scharbatke-Church and Chigas on Peacebuilding and Corruption in the MENA region. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Law and Diplomacy at Fletcher with a focus on stronger Monitoring and Evaluation systems for operationalizing collaborations across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace nexus. Prior to Fletcher, she worked on conflict prevention at a CSO out of New York and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea.

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