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August 8, 2009 / criminalstudent

Reading list: Corruption, conflict and post-conflict reconstruction

A frequently noted dimension to the crime-conflict nexus is the non-state dimension, where illicit or criminal gains sustain armed groups, alter incentives and ultimately prolong conflict or intensify its impact on civilians. But an equally important dimension to conflict and post-conflict reconstruction is criminality inside the state apparatus or the remnants thereof in the form of corruption.

The corruption conundrum: corruption or violence

State corruption in a conflict or a post-conflict context poses a conundrum in terms of peace stability operations andpost-conflict reconstruction efforts. On the one hand, corruption and informal state-based patronage systems are related to state weakness and can be seen as factors precipitating conflict. On the other hand, the immediacy of the need for humanitarian aid and post-conflict reconstruction efforts means that the international community often works with corrupt institutions and political actors – and in a post-conflict context where security is precarious and aid needs are dire, stamping out corruption is way down the list of priorities. But pouring aid money and military assistance into a dysfunctional state can also lead to unhappy outcomes, which is the topic of a recent article on “Corruption and Government” by Susan Rose-Ackerman in an International Peacekeeping issue devoted to Peacebuilding and Corruption.

Keeping the system together the easy way

Susan Rose-Ackerman is well aware of the corruption conundrum (which is also unlikely to have escaped the attention of practitioners) and she argues that “may be risky and difficult to counter corruption in post-conflict peacebuilding [but] if the problem is allowed to fester, it can undermine other efforts to create a stable, well-functioning state.” Corruption is an easy way for a weak government to keep the system together in the short term; it may be “a short-term way to hold the system together and prevent violent disintegration” as the governments buys off powerful actors such as criminal groups and business interests, who in turn also buy off politicians. Doing away with such as system in too rash a manner “can breed instability and violence” as actors scramble to maintain their position.

Aid money and the “honey-pot” effect

But doing nothing about corruption in reconstruction efforts is not feasible. A point not directly addressed by Rose-Ackerman is the potential negative impact of a sudden inflow of humanitarian aid or reconstruction programmes in a corrupt state. Such an inflow is likely to trigger a “honey-pot” effect with actors competing – sometimes violently – over their slice of the cake. At best, the more powerful and avaricious elites become embedded in the state and may prove difficult to dislodge over the following years. At worst, competing over aid spoils may precipitate a return to violent conflict.

Returning to business as usual

Rose-Ackerman notes that decisions made early on by donors can “lock in the power of a small elite whose vested interests then hold back efforts”. A prime example is Afghanistan, where political expedience on the part of President Karzai and the accommodation of local elites has led to a “vicious spiral with an estimated 35-50 per cent of aid money wasted.” The integration of warlords in that country’s political elite also does not augur well for the state-building project there.

Mozambique, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sierra Leone are other examples mentioned in the article. State actors and belligerents were simply bought off in Mozambique to end the war. The smuggling networks that developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the conflict there remained in place following its conclusion and benefitted from incoming aid. Similarly, Sierra Leonean patronage networks persist (despite the role of these networks in precipitating conflict).

Addressing corruption in post-conflict reconstruction

The nature of corruption – in particular its close relationship to political power in many weak states – makes it difficult to address for the international community. Nonetheless, a few of Susan Rose-Ackerman’s policy recommendations are worth highlighting along with some obvious problems.

“Seek peace agreements that incorporate measures to limit corruption.”

There might however be two problems with this. Firstly, that anti-corruption measures may be adverse to belligerents that are already reluctant to come to the negotiating table and that these measures will go early in the name of peace and political expediency. Secondly, that including additional measures in peace agreements might risk overloading them with different and sometimes conflicting concerns.

“International peacekeepers may be needed to create a space in which reform can occur. They can only do this, however, if they have the resources to operate effectively.”

Peacekeeping is important because reforms can otherwise destabilise the existing equilibrium and cause renewed conflict, but the perennial problem of adequate resources is unlikely to go away in any near future.

“Do not simply pour in funds without clear checks on their use.”

This is seemingly a no-brainer, but in the policy process getting at least something there fast often beats the longer-term objective of financial controls and institution-building. Rose-Ackerman suggests using donor trust funds that entail financial controls such as the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund, but donors are not always keen on these funds as they have fixed mandates, which make it difficult to redistribute money to other areas should the need arise promptly.

“International bodies can help buy off and arrange exile for corrupt top leaders.”

This is probably more feasible, but in a resource-rich context very few international bodies would be able to offer a corrupt top leader a much better deal than staying on and siphoning off money from the economy.

“Create bodies both inside government agencies and independent of the executive to administer a freedom-of-information law to audit and monitor government spending.”

This highlights the need for technical assistance, but these agencies and the staff in them will at least at first operate in a highly adverse – not to say dangerous – environment and consistent assistance and protection is likely to be needed if even a moderate measure of success is to be attained.


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  1. Ellen / Dec 29 2012 02:49

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