Peacebuilding and Corruption in Focus: Can looking through an Anti-Corruption lens strengthen Security Sector Reform?

By Julien Joly

Corruption, conflict and instability are profoundly intertwined. It has been shown time and again that corruption not only follows conflict but is also frequently one of the root causes of armed violence.Despite this, relatively little attention has been given to the link between peacebuilding and corruption. But since peacebuilding aims to address the root causes of violent conflict, wouldn’t it make sense to tackle corruption as part of peacebuilding efforts? Could anti-corruption approaches improve the impact of peacebuilding initiatives?

At Transparency International Defence & Security, we are calling for anti-corruption to be put at the front and centre of peacebuilding and stabilisation efforts. As corruption is increasingly recognised for its role in fuelling conflicts and insecurity around the world, initiatives that aim to address the root causes of violence and build lasting peace need to take this in consideration. Based on our research in 6 countries over 5 years, it has become clear to us that initiatives that aim to address the root causes of violence and build lasting peace need to take into account the role of corruption in fuelling conflict and insecurity.

Why corruption matters for peacebuilding and stabilisation: The corruption-conflict nexus

Our research found that in West Africa corruption fuels conflict in two ways:

1. By diminishing the effectiveness of national institutions; and

2. By generating popular grievances.

Both these elements contribute to undermining the legitimacy of the state, and in conflict situations this can empower armed groups who present themselves as the only viable alternative.

As an example, Mali has experienced two coups in the space of the last decade alone. The first, in 2012, was carried out by disgruntled army officers just months before elections after an alliance between the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad and jihadi groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had easily defeated the Malian army. To international observers, ‘the weakness of the Malian army came as little surprise to anyone who had been watching the steady erosion of state institutions, largely as a result of widespread corruption.

The second occurred in August 2020 after a period of internationally supported peacekeeping, stabilization and peacebuilding in the country following a French-led intervention that had restored civilian democratic governance. Discontent with the government had again grown. According to  Dr. Virginie Baudais from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this was driven largely by religious organisations and civil society organisations “calling for the resignation of President Keïta and denouncing not only his governance, but also the corruption of the state and the inability of the Malian army to restore security.”

So, what is the common denominator here? Corruption alone may not have been the trigger of either of these events, but it was certainly a significant contributing factor for both. And Mali is not an isolated case. From Afghanistan to Colombia and the Central African Republic, corruption has been playing a role in fuelling conflicts and insecurity. So, just as corruption is often pervasive in conflicts, anti-corruption must pervade peacebuilding initiatives.

Anti-corruption and SSR: complementary approaches?

One area has drawn my attention in particular: Security Sector Reform (SSR). Good governance in the security sector, to ensure that security forces are accountable and effective, surely would need to include a sustained focus on addressing corruption. Though this makes sense in theory, in practice this is far from being the case. Returning to the example of Mali, evidence shows that mitigation of corrupt practices often fails to receive sufficient attention when it comes to designing and implementing SSR programmes. There are two reasons why:

1. A ‘capacity build first, reform second’ approach

SSR is usually heavily influenced by donor support, particularly in post-conflict and fragile contexts. But this support overwhelmingly targets tactical and operational reforms, relying on train-and-equip approaches at the expense of structural reforms which would focus on bolstering accountability and reducing corruption. Typically, donors spend 80 to 90 per cent of their resources on ‘train-and-equip’ programmes in SSR. This leaves little funding for governance reforms, which demand investment and political commitment over a much longer timeframe. Treating security sector issues as purely technical ones of a capacity deficit neglects the fact that dysfunction is often inherently political.

2. Corruption at the margin of SSR frameworks

The guiding frameworks for SSR too often mention corruption superficially and marginalise it in favour of the train-and-equip approaches described above. For instance, although UN Resolution 2151on SSR acknowledges interlinkages between SSR and ‘other important factors of stabilisation and reconstruction’ such as anti-corruption measures, the UN SSR Integrated Technical Guidance Note on SSR deliberately does ‘not elaborate on post-conflict issues, such as corruption.’  Since most SSR programmes draw on UN-inspired frameworks, it comes as a little surprise that anti-corruption is rarely considered a priority in the context of SSR.

Bringing an anti-corruption lens to SSR

What does this mean in practice for SSR programming? In many instances, an emphasis on building capacity while leaving security oversight and management structures untouched leads to incomplete and ineffective SSR. Yet in many areas, the anti-corruption community and the peacebuilding community could benefit from each other’s expertise. Reforming human resources management and financial systems, strengthening audit and control mechanisms, and supporting civilian democratic oversight: these are the bread and butter of anti-corruption practitioners. They also happen to be key components of SSR. 

To contribute to wider peacebuilding efforts in a meaningful way, we need to take a corruption-sensitive approach to them and address anti-corruption as a cross-cutting issue, much like many organisations – including in the field of SSR – have become used to doing so for gender. Indeed, why not use tools such as the ’Gender Mainstreaming in SSR’ guidance to inspire the development of a similar framework for anti-corruption? This would shift the focus from solely training and equipping security forces to putting transparency, accountability and anti-corruption at its core. What would mainstreaming anti-corruption into SSR look like? I will share some of my ideas in the next post in this series. In the meantime, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and ideas.

Continuing the Conversation  Abusing Power: Corruption & Conflict Blog Series

This is the second post in our “Abusing Power: Corruption & Conflict Blog Series” which forms part of CJL’s Corruption and Peacebuilding project. The purpose of the series is to foster an ongoing space for conversation between actors working in the field of anti-corruption and peacebuilding. We invite those of you working at this intersection of anti-corruption/integrity-building and peace — as scholars, practitioners or policy makers — to share your insights and work, or any additional questions you have.  The first post in this series set out our co-director, Diana Chigas’ reflections on why and how the peacebuilding anti-corruption fields should look for opportunities for sharing and cross-pollinating approaches. We look forward to connecting with all of you who are currently working on similar questions. 

For more in this series see:

About the Author

Julien Joly works for Transparency International – Defence & Security as at thematic advisor on conflict and crisis. His work focuses on exploring the intersection between corruption and conflict, and in particular – how anti-corruption efforts can support peacebuilding and stabilisation. He previously worked in the fields of humanitarian assistance, development, stabilization and peacebuilding, including with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations system.

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2 thoughts on “Peacebuilding and Corruption in Focus: Can looking through an Anti-Corruption lens strengthen Security Sector Reform?

  • March 3, 2021 at 9:45 am


    Great article and whole heartedly agree with what you have written.

    The starting point in my opinion is even earlier regards to rooting out corruption and that is the countries that give grace and favour to the supported regime or groups. When rebuilding is being spoken about, intrinsically agreement must be sought on how structures and governance will take place with corruption being a key area. If you don’t gain agreement for this from the outset and a structure to monitor as progress is made it is too late to then reverse those steps and get meaningful accountability.
    There needs to be good oversight with strong punishment for corruption not to take place.
    What would be helpful is an understanding how corruption manifested itself in Mali, Iraq and Afghanistan some of the common denominators to give us a base understanding, providing an early opportunity to put robust governance, accountability built in to the structures that form part of the agreements.
    This has to be coupled with strong leadership, open honest dialogue with the full backing of the law.

  • March 12, 2021 at 11:22 am

    Dear Sukhy,

    Thank you very much for your contribution to this discussion.

    I fully agree with your point on countries that give grace and favour to the regimes to which they provide support. It is indeed crucial to take into consideration that in many conflict and post-conflict settings, foreign interests can foster environments permissive to corruption. Whether it is the case that corruption is intentionally used as an instrument of statecraft – to help achieve foreign policy goals – or whether the international community turns a blind eye to domestic corruption for political expediency, it has a damaging effect on any arrangements made to consolidate peace and lay the foundations for development.

    This being said, in many instances domestic initiatives and instruments exist and peacebuilding practitioners could build on these to mitigate both corruption itself and the impact of foreign interests on corruption. The question is: how do we harness the capacity of these instruments to tackle corruption in a comprehensive manner? For instance, the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali provides a commitment to fight against corruption and impunity. In parallel, Mali is undergoing a security sector reform process that aims to improve the overall governance of the security apparatus and increase accountability. However, very little effort is made to connect the fight against corruption and the SSR process with one another. In practice, very little attention is given to the one particular paragraph on corruption included in the peace agreement, while anti-corruption is side-lined in the Malian SSR process.

    In my opinion, part of the solution would be to start considering corruption as a cross-cutting issue in peace support, as we do already for gender, and identify practical mechanisms to mainstream anti-corruption in peacebuilding efforts.

    Regarding how corruption manifests itself on the three countries you mentioned, I recommend the ‘Lessons Learned from the U.S. Experience with Corruption in Afghanistan’ by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a declassified paper from the UK Current Intelligence Group, ‘How Corrupt is Iraq’, and a series of reports on Mali published by Transparency International Defence & Security, including ‘Building Accountability in Mali’s Defence and Security Sector’, ‘Security assistance, corruption and fragile environments: Exploring the case of Mali 2001-2012’ and ‘The Common Denominator: How Corruption in the Security Sector Fuels Insecurity in West Africa’.


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