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Three Things Peacebuilders Should Read About Anti-corruption and Conflict

By Rosemary Ventura

Corruption actively drives fragility and conflict around the world—from Lebanon to Mozambique to Central America’s Northern Triangle. This reality has caught the Biden-Harris administration’s attention, leading to its recent commitment to establishing anti-corruption as a core U.S. national security interest. These peace and security challenges should have all of us examining how our work relates to corruption: nearly all international development and peace programmatic sectors, particularly those in fragile and conflict-affected settings, are impacted by corruption and this programming itself influences corruption dynamics.

The CJL team has a long-standing interest in the relationship between corruption and conflict. During our deep dive into the existing literature this past year, it’s become strikingly clear how the unnecessary silos between the anti-corruption and peacebuilding fields curtail valuable cross-pollination of ideas.

An important first step to create synergies between the peacebuilding and anti-corruption fields is understanding each field’s different languages and approaches. Through research funded by the Fares Center on the conflict-sensitivity of anti-corruption, we have churned through significant practitioner resources and scholarship.

Below, we share three key texts peacebuilders should read to grasp how anti-corruption practitioners approach dilemmas of conflict and corruption and where peacebuilders can contribute to the conversation. Given how often corruption is identified as a core driver of conflict, we hope peacebuilders can see their own work well-embedded in these articles, albeit in different language.

#1. Illuminating the Corruption and Conflict Relationships:

What gaps it fills:

This volume of the Life & Peace Institute journal series – New Routes – is the fountainhead for conversations among practitioners and scholars on the nexus between corruption, conflict, and peacebuilding. In 12 incisive articles pulling grounded examples from Burundi, Liberia, the Caucasus, Lebanon, Colombia, and the DRC, it teases out some ways corruption acts as a driver of conflict (though we think there are others!) and makes a compelling case for why peacebuilders can and should address corruption. As a bonus for the brave silo-hopping reader, the compilation is imbued with the language and conceptual DNA of conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

Why peacebuilders will care:

Pilfering the Peace covers the widest range of themes on conflict and corruption, highlighting key aspects of these long-overlooked relationships. This text wonderfully details how conflict and corruption intersect; however, it also reminds us of the need for additional work to advance the evidence base of how to operationalize this nexus.

Entry points for peacebuilders to the conversation:

We think peacebuilders will particularly like the exploration of the tensions between tolerating corruption to achieve peace agreements in the short run and undermining positive peace in the long run. It also hints at which anti-corruption tools might be most applicable to post-conflict contexts and how to think through the conflict-sensitivity of anti-corruption work.

#2. How Anti-Corruption Practitioners Approach Fragile Contexts

What gaps it fills:

As a one-stop-shop for anti-corruption approaches in fragile contexts, this 2020 GIZ review covers how anti-corruption work can be done in your peacebuilding ‘backyards’ of fragile and conflict-affected settings. Anti-corruption practitioners are just starting to realize that their traditional wheelhouse of approaches need to be significantly adapted for fragile and conflict settings. This is the only work to date that comprehensively pulls together the evidence on fragility and corruption and provides programmatic recommendations for anti-corruption approaches.

Why peacebuilders will care:

Peacebuilders and anti-corruption practitioners are often wrapped up in their own lexicons. This review will help peacebuilders ‘speak corruption’ through an overview of the common anti-corruption toolkit and the growing conversation on adapting anti-corruption to fragile contexts.

Peacebuilders should know that given the dearth of compelling evidence about what’s most effective in fragile and conflict contexts, anti-corruption programs in conflict settings are often working in the dark.

This report reflects the overall state of the anti-corruption field’s understanding of conflict and corruption: there are many indications of what not to do when implementing anti-corruption programming in fragile contexts, yet we find a near complete dearth of compelling evidence on what to do.

Entry points for peacebuilders to the conversation:

We think peacebuilders could contribute significantly to figuring out what to do to address corruption in FCAS by retooling classic peacebuilding techniques for recurring anti-corruption challenges. For instance, many authors and practitioners emphasize that sufficient political will is essentially a requirement for any successful anti-corruption reforms, yet in many conflict settings genuine political will for these reforms is a laughably lofty goal. What insights might the peacebuilding community have for how to build political will over time?

Similarly, anti-corruption efforts often stumble when trying to identify appropriate reform partners. Here again, peacebuilders may have key insights into how to understand enough about the motivations, identities, and allegiances of possible partners. This report serves as a great introduction to current anti-corruption thinking on adapting approaches for FCAS and will provide peacebuilders with food for thought on where insights from peacebuilding can most add value.

#3. Anti-Corruption through Gradual, Indirect Trust-Building

(Background paper to the 2011 World Development Report)

What gaps it fills:

Given how much of the literature indicates what not to do, Michael Johnston’s suggestions for which strategies might be most appropriate in FCAS will be a breath of fresh air to many practitioners (including ourselves). Due to the challenges of uncertainty, fragility, conflict tensions, and low institutional capacities often found in post-conflict settings, he argues for approaches that mitigate conflict risks and gradually work towards anti-corruption objectives through indirect means such as improved service delivery.

Why peacebuilders will care:

Johnston provides a typology of four political economy ‘syndromes’ of corruption (influence markets; elite cartels; oligarchs & clans; and official moguls). These may serve as a useful foundation to start tailoring anti-corruption programs to specific fragile or conflict contexts. Dominick Zaum has further elaborated these for fragile contexts, and we think it’s a promising framework from which peacebuilders and anti-corruption practitioners could jointly shape appropriate strategies.

It is worth noting, however, that the anti-corruption field, like many other humanitarian and development sectors, coopted the language of Do No Harm and conflict sensitivity and uses them differently from the traditional peacebuilding conceptualizations. Johnston’s overall arguments for where and why to mitigate potential harms of anti-corruption programs are generally useful – albeit somewhat blunt applications of the Do No Harm and conflict sensitivity frameworks.

The main risks Johnston considers are that anti-corruption can overwhelm a society’s capacity to absorb aid and use it effectively or can push a society into more disruptive and pernicious forms of long-term corruption. Zaum’s article adds additional concerns that efforts to control corruption can do harm if they are captured and weaponized to damage rivals or if they obstruct peace processes.

Entry points for peacebuilders to the conversation:

For peacebuilders, it will come as little surprise that building citizen-state trust must be high on any post-conflict agenda. We suspect the peacebuilding community will have many insights – that may be currently missing in anti-corruption conversations – into the nuances of building and restoring citizen-state and citizen-citizen relationships.

This piece also advocates the indirect approaches to addressing corruption. Johnston gives more specific suggestions than some other authors in the ‘indirect anti-corruption’ camp for what this might concretely look like. (He suggests focusing on service delivery in order to build trust gradually.). But in what ways do these theorists believe these interventions will impact corruption dynamics? Are these plausible Theories of Change? We think peacebuilders will be a useful and clarifying voice in these much-needed conversations.

What are you seeing in your work?

As the literature and evidence bases on conflict and corruption grow, we are eager to hear what other practitioners are interested in. Peacebuilders, have you been working on corruption? Do you have examples of successes or emerging good practices for addressing corruption in fragile contexts? We’d love to hear from you!


About the Author

Rosemary Ventura is CJL’s Peacebuilding & Monitoring Summer Associate. Having previously worked on conflict prevention and peacebuilding through a civil society organization in NYC, and serving as a public health Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, Rosemary brings her valuable on-the-ground experience to the work that we do at CJL. Rosemary is a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University studying Human Security and Monitoring & Evaluation.


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