Anti-corruption measures in Security Sector Reform: necessary and achievable

SSR cannot be effective unless efforts are made to tackle corruption, but often this issue is felt to be too politically sensitive to address. Approaching corruption as a systemic issue opens the space for defence officials to become engaged.

James Cohen
22 August 2012

Strikingly, many times transparency and anti-corruption can end up being avoided when undertaking security sector reform (SSR). Doing so is counterproductive. It all comes down to yet another example of “I’ll do it this afternoon”: There is an important task to be done but we’ll do it when we feel more comfortable, “when conditions are right”. Given that the objectives of security sector reform are often described as achieving effectiveness and accountability, why is it that transparency and anti-corruption are so often left behind in an SSR process?

The truth is that addressing corruption in an SSR process is not easy. It is in fact nuanced, political, and long-term work; however, it is also necessary. And it can be done, despite the challenges it involves.

First, defence and security institutions around the world are used to some degree of secrecy in their operations, under the guise of security interests. This is understandable and even up to a certain level necessary. But what should be the threshold? Countries which have a long tradition of democratic institutions and values might debate with civil oversight authorities over relative degrees of transparency, but the defence and security sectors of former authoritarian regimes will take some convincing that their budgets and procurement choices should be scrutinised by civilians.

The second challenge is that the politics of tackling corruption can act as a red flag, warning reform actors to avoid the problem. Corruption allows individuals to unfairly achieve economic gains, and to wield power through patronage and favoritism in distributing public goods. Even where the rule of law is weak, the public will know who gained favours unfairly. Thus, by addressing corruption, not only are the personal interests and networks of individuals disrupted, there is also an underlying concern of these corrupt individuals being caught and prosecuted. Addressing corruption in the defence and security sectors is especially hazardous, as the effects of not addressing it properly, may lead to violent reprisal and state destabilisation, such as a prominent corrupt general who would mobilise his loyal troops with bribes to stir political violence rather than face prosecution.

These challenges are not to be underestimated, and should be weighed carefully when beginning an SSR process. If oversight by parliamentarians and national auditors offices are improved, this will naturally place scrutiny on the approximately $1.7 trillion spent globally in the defence sector every year. If codes of conduct are improved and better implemented, and human resource management strengthened, this will naturally create hurdles to appointments being made as forms of patronage, or staff lists being stuffed with fake names or ‘ghost soldiers’ whose paychecks are then pocketed.

If integrity pacts are established for procurement, this will undermine collusive and fixed bidding processes. And yet, one way or another, corruption will try and rear its ugly head in the reform process, hence champions for change need to get to the root of these problems. Not doing so could result in more well laid out procedures and policies which go nowhere, leading to fatigue for those trying to effect change, and a heightened sense of impunity for those stalling reform.

The good news is that addressing corruption can be done, and is far from being an impossible task. While of course there are some groups addressing corruption in SSR, Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme (TI-DSP) has been making some ground in this area, addressing the issue head-on in some cases.

In actual fact, despite the received wisdom that you can’t discuss corruption with top officials, our experience shows that you can. In the face of seeming intransigence, military-to-military dialogue is the first step towards opening the door. Normally it can be difficult for an NGO like Transparency International to get the attention of defence and security staff, however employing former defence and diplomatic officials has helped us to make our case. Many defence actors react surprisingly well, finding our approach is fairly pragmatic.

That pragmatism is the second step towards making corruption a discussable topic. Whereas many spoilers of reform processes will tend to equate corruption with prosecution, at TI-DSP we see corruption as a systemic, organisational issue, beyond alleged misconduct of General X or Official Y. Corruption is built into a system and its processes, and this is where change needs to start. Tackling the risk of corruption starts and ends with people within an organisation changing their behaviour. Officers recognise corruption when they see it, but the issue is often not part of their agenda. Realising corruption is a systemic issue and not a personal one sets the foundations for conversation.

Finally, bringing corruption into the discussion can be appealing because corruption will inevitably affect the operational capacity of defence and security forces. No military wants to know that it’s not functioning to its best capacity because of corruption. This becomes the stepping stone towards taking action.

Although this dialogue is a pivotal part of the SSR process, it may not appeal to every security actor, and it may only get advocates for change – whether they are donors or local civil society – some initial entry into the defence and security sector by conducting training with mid-level officials. Nevertheless, this is also a good start and a big win.It is widely acknowledged that SSR is a long-term process, thus the next generation of change-leaders need to be built up at the mid-level so they can make steady progress over time. This can be a best case scenario if political will at the top level is adverse to change. TI-DSP has seen this leads to progressive results if these future change agents are mentored in their efforts over time.

This is not an exhaustive list of actions that can be taken, and certainly we have learnt other good practices and are continuously learning. The first step in the right direction is acknowledging that corruption must be addressed for any security sector to really be reformed.

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