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International community’s police reform efforts in CAR: Making it worse?

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, CJL

In this post Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church shares evidence to support why if we want citizen security and criminal justice to be a reality in the future in the Central African Republic, now is the time to integrate anti-corruption into police, justice and corrections reform programming.

Significant investment has been made by the international community in police, courts and corrections in the Central African Republic (CAR) over the past few years. Yet the programming, in spite of the good intentions behind it, is based on flawed theories of change derived from apolitical needs assessments that are wholly inappropriate for a fragile state. At best, the efforts will deliver marginal results and, at worst, the work will contribute to the insecurity and distortion of justice because of the total lack of corruption-sensitivity.

There is no function within the police, courts and corrections in CAR that is not touched by corruption. Since the calming of the 2013 Séléka/anti-Balaka crisis, the primordial purpose of its criminal justice system (CJS) has become to service the rich and well-connected. This makes extortion, sexual favors, favoritism and political interference, the keystones of the CJS. For a full description of the corruption as a system in the CJS and how the recent crisis contributed to it based on our new research, please see here.

Big investment in CJS reform, but it could be making the corruption worse

Significant financial resources have been allocated to support police, courts and corrections by the United States, the European Union (EU) and France. This includes three large scale efforts: the UN Joint Program(predominately supported by the USG), the EU’s Rehabilitation of the Justice and Police Sector Program, and the French government’s provision of technical assistance to government ministries.

Despite the prevalence of corruption, there is not a single explicit element in any of the programs that attempts to right the distortion that is corruption. Instead, collectively the programming focuses on the provision of equipment, rebuilding infrastructure and training. To be fair, it could be argued that there are select elements of programming that indirectly act as anti-corruption measures, such as the professional ethics session within police training, but even these do not explicitly acknowledge corruption as an issue.

What’s wrong with that; the 2013 crisis destroyed CAR’s infrastructure and the donor community is supporting its reconstruction; right? Wrong, it is not that simple! In a context where the pre-crisis CJS served the purpose of citizen security and justice this might be a fair assessment. But that is not CAR or any other fragile state for that matter. In a place where the primary purpose of the criminal justice system is to serve the wealthy and well-connected, by injecting assets into the system (e.g. provision of computers) what we are doing is making that system better at achieving these ends – the service of the wealthy. Consider the police; more cars, uniforms and boots for the police makes them look more official, gives them means to coerce and more mobility to expand their reach. All of which makes them more effective at what they were already doing – using their role to extort citizens.

At minimum, internationally, supported efforts should not exacerbate a negative dynamic in society. Inspired by the concept of conflict sensitivity, we argue that the minimum standard should be corruption-sensitivity. In other words, programming should not make the system of corruption worse.

What is conflict sensitivity?

Conflict sensitivity refers to the practice of understanding how aid interacts with conflict in a particular context, to mitigate unintended negative effects, and to influence conflict positively wherever possible, through humanitarian, development and/or peacebuilding interventions.

Corruption makes programming ineffective

Not addressing corruption in the current programs undermines their ability to reach their goals, regardless of how modest those may be. For instance, corruption in the administration enables people to change their birth certificates and become age eligible to participate in the international community supported police recruitment process. Consider, the allocation of vehicles to the police. These get allocated based on hierarchy and relationships rather than need or role. This is why wives of senior ranking police officers are seen driving around in these vehicles. Final illustration – the training programs that are being offered are populated with individuals who are well-connected and are ‘granted’ access to the program, and its per diems, solely based on their connection. We cannot confuse the fact that the programs are running, with those programming being effective.

Apolitical approaches are not appropriate for the criminal justice system in a fragile state

The assumption that assets will be used to serve and protect people is a symptom of the apolitical approach that the donor community took to understand the context– namely the use of needs assessments – and to develop the theories of change that underpin these programs. Based on descriptions from the field, the most common theory of change claims that first the CJS must be rebuilt, then made operational, and then address the quality of its processes; at which point—in theory—an anti-corruption effort could be initiated. The second theory of change asserts that by giving judicial actors the appropriate tools and skills, they will do better work.

Donor representatives in-country referenced the original needs assessments that were conducted, which make sense from the perspective of the theories of change that were being used. If you want to rebuild understanding what currently exists makes sense, but is not wise nor strategic when one considers the subject matter and context. While these are reasonable appraisal methods for humanitarian or basic development programming, these apolitical processes, when coupled with a political elite who wishes to maintain the status quo of influence peddling, result in priorities that have been established in a vacuum. This makes the theories fundamentally flawed, because they do not take into account the role that corruption plays in the dysfunction of the CJS.

Now is the time to act on corruption

If we want citizen security and criminal justice to be a reality in the future in CAR, now is the time to integrate anti-corruption into police, justice and corrections reform programming. There are three compelling reasons to act now;

1. If history repeats itself, donor community interest in CAR will rapidly decline once the overt threat of violence is stemmed. Without significant presence by a collection of like-minded international donors, no individual bilateral donor will have the influence to change the broader system. With the international community’s outsized influence in CAR at the moment, it is still possible that it could impact the system.

2. If programming continues as planned, by the time it gets to its final stages the corruption system will be so deeply entrenched that finding a toe-hold will be extraordinarily difficult. The loyalty-based recruitment and advancement mechanisms will have firmly stitched criminal justice actors into obligatory relationships that dictate behavior such as turning a blind eye to sexual abuse or changing justice outcomes. As this already extends into the political arena, the manipulation of criminal justice by state actors so that they can maintain their power will only continue.

3. Finally, corruption within the police, courts and corrections – regardless of whether it is labelled ‘petty’ or ‘administrative’ – is not a minor infraction when it comes to the consequences. In this sector, petty corruption equates to torture, abuse, insecurity, sexual assault and human rights abuse for the people who cannot comply. On a more systematic level, when every element within the CJS is premised on corruption, it becomes a key barrier between positive and negative peace. Not dealing with the corruption in the CJS, locks the Central African Republic in a cycle of insecurity, violence, gross inequality and injustice; where the state institutions act as the perpetrators of this cycle.


To learn more

The research

Findings are based on 115 interviews conducted in Bangui over the summer of 2017. In addition to standard qualitative coding, casual loop mapping was used as a means of analysis. The final report was authored by Ladislas de Coster, Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, and Kiely Barnard-Webster with the support of Kessy Martine Ekomo-Soignet, Peter Woodrow and Arsène Sende. It is available in English and French.


Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning.


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