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Polygamous relationships: how conflict and peacebuilding fuel corruption

By Diana Chigas, Co-Director, CJL and Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL

We dove into the intricacies of how illicit wealth and power obtained through corrupt means and networks can create conflict in our last post. But that is the story of only one side of this relationship. Illicit wealth and power (the outcomes of corruption) are also consequences of conflict. This is partially because of another partner in this relationship, namely, crime which thrives in conflict zones.

In fact, conflict and corruption are "interdependent, interconnected elements of a system," which means that conflict-produced illicit wealth and power go on to fuel greater division. If conflict, corruption and crime aren’t enough to contend with in this 'relationship,' we also need to understand how the international response to conflict makes the conflict-corruption vicious cycle worse.

Three ways conflict empowers the pursuit of illicit wealth and power

While there has been a gradual uptick in the number of quantitative studies finding that conflict can worsen corruption, there’s a paucity of robust research offering nuanced conclusions that tease out the relationship. We’ve synthesized the existing material into the three most common assertions on how conflict fuels corruption.

1. Armed conflict weakens government institutions which is a boon for corrupt actors

Just as corruption undermines institutions, so does armed conflict. The features of war—inter-group violence and competition, extreme scarcity, physical destruction, trauma and uncertainty—weaken or catalyze collapse of government structures. Diminished government institutions have a myriad of effects on the prevalence of corruption.

"A significant amount of the academic literature focuses on how the international response to the conflict may make corruption worse. Let that sink in for a minute… peacebuilding interventions are an important part of the conflict-corruption system."

Limited government services incentivize people to behave corruptly: Accessing scarce basic services (e.g., health care, education, passports) incentivizes corrupt practices as citizens use any means necessary to meet their needs. Conversely, unpaid/underpaid civil servants take advantage of this weakened administrative infrastructure to survive by charging ‘fees for service’ or collecting future favors.

Diminished prevention and detection capabilities create opportunities: Police, courts and the correctional arms of the government experience the same dynamics as other basic services, with the added consequence that a corrupt criminal justice system means the primary tools for detecting and sanctioning corruption are not just ineffective but up for sale. Law enforcement becomes at best ineffective and at worst compromised, resulting in a culture of impunity that further incentivizes corrupt and criminal acts. All of this creates structural opportunities for elite capture and expansion of illicit activities as well as organized crime. As the Global Organized Crime Index found in 2021, fragile and conflict affected states experience the greatest vulnerability to organized crime, with state-embedded actors being “the most dominant agents in facilitating illicit economies and inhibiting resilience to organized crime.”

In Iraq, for example, in the early years following the war, public institutions even struggled to know how many employees they had, much less keep track of state resources, hiring, or contracting practices. Fifteen years later, political actors control government appointments, and Iraqi ministers were reporting that political blocs processed contracts and payments without their consent or knowledge. Diversion of the limited resources of government to one’s own ‘people,’ outright theft, and use of government equipment for personal benefit all further undermine the limited-service delivery in these contexts.

2. Armed conflict elevates actors dependent on illicit wealth and power

Actors who have gained illicit wealth and networks during armed conflict become embedded (post-conflict) into the highest levels of state institutions. While they are technically representatives of the state and in theory responsible for the public good, they remain beholden to their illicit and informal sources of their wealth and power.

In wartime, actors build informal networks to finance their cause or to make profit from illicit practices—from smuggling and “taxation” to drug and human trafficking—which in turn strengthens their power and influence. Al Shabaab in Somalia, for example, has built an extensive racketeering operation in illicit charcoal and sugar smuggling, including checkpoint taxation, that reportedly amounts to US$70 – 100 million annually. This has made the group resilient to the military efforts to defeat it, but also positions it to be powerful in a post-conflict context.

"The introduction of large amounts of aid into environments with weak institutions and limited absorptive capacity can seriously distort the economy and provide incentives and opportunities for organized crime and corruption to grow."

These wartime structures of influence continue post-war and may displace older political and economic structures. The legitimacy and support of these new elites are grounded in violence, wartime accumulation, and patronage, with symbiotic relationships with criminal groups. The powerful informal actors within their support network, including the criminal groups, can manipulate the rules of the game from the shadows to gain access, for example, to the spoils of economic liberalization, international aid, or protection for continuing illicit activities (e.g., drug, human trafficking, smuggling, etc.). The 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Djinjic is a dramatic example. He was killed by a criminal group following indictments that exposed its deep influence on state institutions, including the police, judiciary and political parties. A high- level prosecutor later admitted to blocking legal proceedings against the criminal group and taking bribes to reveal the locations of key witnesses.

3. Conflict entrenches illicit economies

Conflict transforms the economic foundations of a country—making informal and illicit activities more important for elite accumulation of wealth and for the livelihoods of ordinary people. In Afghanistan, for instance, conflict, “is associated with a major drop in formal sector activity, an increase in its informal sector counterpart, and a surge in illicit activities.”

This often starts with the fighting parties needing arms, ammunition and other materiel, which must be obtained illicitly. Transcending borders, these war-financing networks—from arms and drug trafficking to illicit natural resource extraction, licensing or taxation—commonly survive after the war, becoming embedded in the post-conflict context with the protection and participation of post-war political leaders. As an example of the scale of the transformation, consider Kosovo in the five years following the war: the amount of drugs transiting Kosovo to Western markets was estimated to have increased from 40% to 80% between 1999 and 2004.

The shortage of jobs, commerce and services creates incentives for people to participate in these illicit economies and activities to survive. This has been documented in Afghanistan, but is a feature of many contexts, where people affected by the war and struggling to survive and provide for their families have nowhere else to turn by illicit economies for work to support their families.

A corruption-blind international response to the conflict can make corruption worse

Words matter. And in colloquium exchanges, blog titles and course overviews, it is most common to see some version of ‘the conflict-corruption relationship.’ Yet a significant amount of the academic literature focuses on how the international response to the conflict may make corruption worse. Let that sink in for a minute… peacebuilding interventions are an important part of the conflict-corruption system. If intervenors enter the system without awareness of the interconnectedness of conflict and corruption, they can exacerbate and entrench the pursuit of illicit wealth and power.

Below are five ways peacebuilding assistance can promulgate illicit wealth and power.

1. Pursuit of “liberal peace” exacerbates incentives and opportunities for obtaining illicit wealth and power

Elections. Economic liberalization. Power sharing arrangements. Decentralization. DDR and SSR. These are all part of the liberal peacebuilding model. And when implemented with a blind eye to the relationship of corruption to conflict, they can make things worse.

Members of the local KLA, Kosovo Liberation Army, march through the streets of Koretin, Kosovo 1999.
Members of the local KLA, Kosovo Liberation Army, march through the streets of Koretin, Kosovo 1999. Public Domain.

Privatization can become a powerful tool of patronage in the hands of a political leader. Demobilization can strengthen criminal capture of the security sector, as in Kosovo, where the NATO demobilization plan, in giving Kosovo Liberation Army members a dominant role in the post-war security architecture to prevent them from “spoiling” the peace, ended up cementing the infiltration of organized criminal groups into state institutions. Even power-sharing arrangements and decentralization, frequently used approaches for promoting peace in inter-group conflicts, have been shown to exacerbate corruption. One statistical study suggests that “it is the institution of power sharing that particularly drives political corruption in the aftermath of civil conflict.”

And decentralization, designed to give greater voice to citizens and marginalized groups and ease inter-group tensions, can end up shifting opportunities for rent-seeking to the regions and prompting political parties and national elites to strengthen vertical patronage systems—if it doesn’t also provide mechanisms for strengthening accountability and transparency.

2. International actors involved in peacebuilding and peacekeeping act as perpetrators

International actors are also participants in the illicit pursuit of wealth and power—colluding with officials or organized crime groups to embezzle aid, traffic women or drugs, or engage in sextortion. Deployments of peacekeepers and aid agencies introduce incentives and opportunities to expand illicit activities, especially human trafficking. This is aptly depicted in The Whistleblower, a movie based on the experiences of an American police officer "who served as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and outed the U.N. for covering up a sex trafficking scandal.” And it is not just in those ‘far off places’ back in the capitals of the primary aid countries—a haven for illicit wealth is provided due to the lack of enforcement of money laundering laws.

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3. Sanctions facilitate emergence of illicit economies

International sanctions are an important tool for dealing with conflict parties, but they also spawn efforts by conflict actors to circumvent them and new conflict entrepreneurs to help. In Syria, Western sanctions succeeded in restricting the government’s access to international financial resources, but inadvertently prompted the emergence of a new elite of “conflict entrepreneurs” serving as the regime’s new intermediaries—businesspeople who make large (often illicit) profits from ties to the regime and who fund the regime in return. In Iraq, the UN sanctions in the 1990s led to the creation of overland oil smuggling routes (a major source of revenue for armed groups) and business ties between the regime and trafficking groups—networks that still operate long after sanctions were removed.

4. The influx of large amounts of international aid incentivizes corruption

The introduction of large amounts of aid into environments with weak institutions and limited absorptive capacity can seriously distort the economy and provide incentives and opportunities for organized crime and corruption to grow. Afghanistan is a prime example. The influx of large sums of money, combined with pressure to spend quickly and insufficient absorptive capacity on the part of government as well as donor/agency capacity (including staff numbers) for oversight of contracting and procurement is a dangerous combination. It can lead to massive waste, fraud, and embezzlement (including by many international contractors), reinforcing the patronage system through which the government served its “clients” at the expense of the citizens at large. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) explicitly made the connection, noting that “The United States contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the Afghan economy, using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with malign powerbrokers.”

5. Exclusive focus on stability enables state capture and criminalization

International actors’ fears of provoking renewed violence or undermining the conflict party they support leads them to turn a blind eye to leaders’ uses of clientelism, vote buying, and abuse of state resources to consolidate their power. The risks to stability of direct efforts to dismantle patronage and client networks and practices and ties to organized crime are real; as Cheng, Goodhand, and Meehan emphasize in their Synthesis Paper of the Elite Bargains and Political Deals Project, there are trade-offs to be made. But the risks of doing nothing are also serious: the consequence may be to reinforce the effects of conflict on corruption—enabling entrenchment of actors dependent on illicit wealth and power in the country’s political and economic structures and strengthening illicit economies.

Effectiveness, Innovation & Further Conversation

In dissecting these relationships, we did not set out to provide a definitive summary. The reality is that things are highly contextual and interact in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle that requires innovative tailored strategies derived from thoughtful analysis. Our hope is to contribute to a continuation of the conversation between the peacebuilding and anti-corruption fields on how to move forward together.

Why seek further conversation? We think it matters for effectiveness. For anti-corruption practitioners, understanding how corruption may not only increase, but also shift and become more entrenched due to conflict, is critical for designing effective interventions in these contexts. As peacebuilders, we must understand the context and make sure we don’t exacerbate the very corruption that can feed renewed conflict.


Diana is a Co-Director at The Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program. She is the Senior International Officer and Associate Provost at Tufts University and a Professor of the Practice of International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations on systemic conflict analysis, and strategic planning, reflection and evaluation to improve the impact of peace programming.

Diana has over 25 years of experience as a facilitator and consultant in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as an advisor and evaluator of social change programming in conflict-affected countries, including in the Balkans, East Africa, South Africa, El Salvador, and Cyprus, as well as with organizations such as the OSCE and the United Nations. Diana has received her JD from Harvard Law School and MALD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.


Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is a scholar-practitioner with a lifelong interest in governance processes that have run amuck. She has significant experience working on peacebuilding, governance, accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. For fifteen years, Cheyanne taught program design, monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts at the Fletcher School. Prior to that she was the Director of Evaluation for Search for Common Ground and Director of Policy at INCORE. She has had the privilege of working in an advisory capacity with a range of organizations such as ABA/ROLI, CDA, ICRC, IDRC, UN Peacebuilding Fund and the US State Department. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Besa Global, CJL’s host institution. She can be commonly found in the Canadian Rockies with her fierce daughters and gem of a husband.


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