From the Panama Papers to an op-ed by Secretary of State John Kerry to a hearing in the U.S. Senate, signs are growing that the U.S. is beginning to understand the threat that widespread corruption poses to U.S. national security and international stability, and that a solution will require global coordination. One concrete measure can start turning that realization into action. 

A volunteer distributes buttons for the Cleaning Up Ukraine movement at am anti-corruption forum where Mikheil Saakashvili delivered a speech, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Jan. 18, 2016. Saakashvili – the former president of Georgia and one of the post-Soviet era’s most contentious and best-known politicians in the region – is making a political comeback in Ukraine as the figurehead of a movement to strip oligarchs of their power.
A volunteer distributes buttons for the Cleaning Up Ukraine movement at an anti-corruption forum in Kharkiv this year. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Pete Kiehart

This April’s release of the Panama Papers put the global scale of corruption on full display for policymakers and the public. They demonstrated that corruption is not contained within borders, but rather facilitates complex global networks, funneling the theft and blood money of kleptocrats and criminals. The Panama Papers also exposed corruption’s harm beyond the emptying of national coffers to the impact on conflict, as greed and grievances undermine security institutions and facilitate terrorist and criminal organizations.

In a May 12 op-ed for USA Today, Kerry called corruption “a poison that erodes trust, robs citizens of their money and their future and stifles economic growth in the places that need it most.” Going further in the Senate hearing, Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said ill-gotten gains from kleptocratic officials have found their way into cities around the world through ‘western enablers’ such as financial and legal advisors. He cited “the purchase of multimillion dollar properties, the arrangement of opaque offshore financial instruments, and the laundering of a kleptocrat’s public image.”

In Ukraine, anger over entrenched corruption fueled the Maidan Revolution, and continues to be a challenge. Corruption further undermined security in the aftermath of the revolution. In the conflict that inflames the country’s east, soldiers are under increased threat from stolen equipment and sold off intelligence. A Ukrainian officer discussing Ukraine’s collective corruption problem in a New York Times article observed, “Now, amid the tensions with Russia and the unrest in the east, many of us are worried that the fight against corruption will be lost. If reforms don’t come now, they probably will never come.”

In Africa’s Sahel region, corruption facilitates terrorist and criminal networks able to slip across borders and cut deals with officials for safe heaven. Mali is a devastating example of corruption’s impact in the region. Over decades, development funds were stolen, compounding the grievances of citizens in the country’s north and fueling separatist movements. Less observed was the gutting of the Malian military by corrupt officials.

Both of these brewing threats erupted in 2012 as underequipped soldiers retreated from an insurgency made up of separatist rebels, Islamist militants, and opportunistic criminal networks. A coup ensued and international forces pushed back the insurgency. But corruption needs to be addressed to ensure a fragile system of governance based on patronage and theft is replaced with a resilient, accountable system.

Lack of Coordination

These and other examples demonstrate how the scale and complexity of corruption can create roadblocks to action. During the Senate hearing, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin, highlighted a lack of coordination among institutions charged with combatting corruption. Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, built on this point, noting that in government, corruption is dealt with by specialized technical units. Corruption is not always addressed as a systematic and cross-cutting issue. This is particularly true when addressing the entanglement of conflict and corruption.

The need for coordination goes beyond government agencies. A number of civil society organizations address corruption from various angles. Some focus on specific countries or certain themes. The result is a plethora of players who are not always aware of each other’s tools and methods for addressing corruption and how they could complement each other.

And that’s just in the United States. Addressing corruption requires global coordination across various sectors such as finance, justice, security, business and trade. Multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development need to be involved as well.

While anti-corruption organizations such as the International Anti-Corruption Conference and the Financial Transparency Coalition seek to advance that coordination, stakeholders across sectors need more regular and rigorous contact.

Working Groups

One place to start is regional and global working groups to keep each other up to date on mechanisms, approaches, tools and research, specifically in relation to the nexus between conflict and corruption.

Such working groups would provide opportunities to exchange information and lessons from prior experience and research. USIP’s International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL), for instance, is conducting a study on best practices in judicial integrity testing – methods of monitoring and gauging characteristics such as honesty and veracity in a judicial system. The findings likely would be of interest to a range of players trying to address corruption in judiciary systems.

Working groups also would allow members to think through scenarios using different organizations’ mechanisms and approaches. For example, table top exercises could involve key countries, working with local and regional civil society and with oversight bodies to map systems of patronage networks, revenue streams and illicit financial flows.

These exercises would allow members of the working groups to think through how initiatives such as financial and visa sanctions, support for local civil society and media oversight, cooperation between unlikely actors and other options might work. The exercises could look at illicit flows coming in and out of countries, identifying foreign financial and legal enablers. Participants also could consider the risks and consequences of each tool and approach, how to reduce those downsides and the political will for using these approaches.

Sarah Chayes provides an example of this kind of working group in Afghanistan in her ground-breaking book, ‘Thieves of State.’ Chayes discusses a small team she worked with that used police investigation models for mapping “Malign Actors Networks.” She then lays out how the team thought through potential measures to address these networks—such as how travel visa denials could be applied, and the counter measures the networks might use to protect themselves and their interests.

Corruption’s ability to cause and perpetuate violent conflict is now in plain sight around the world. While more attention is being paid and governments are stepping up efforts against corruption, the momentum needs to be seized to improve cooperation and coordination among a range of players that matches the scope of the problem.

James Cohen served until recently as a program officer for rule of law, justice and security at USIP. He is currently an independent expert on governance and security.

Related Publications

China’s Evolving Role as a U.N. Peacekeeper in Mali

China’s Evolving Role as a U.N. Peacekeeper in Mali

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

By: Jean-Pierre Cabestan

Chinese troops have been stationed in Mali for the last half-decade as part of the UN-mandated stabilization force. Deployed after rebel groups overran large portions northeastern Mali in 2013, it was just the second time Beijing had ever contributed combat troops to a UN peacekeeping mission. This Special Report examines how China is using its peacekeeping activities in Mali as an opportunity to train troops and test equipment in a hostile environment—and as a way of extending its diplomatic reach and soft power in Africa and beyond.

Type: Special Report

Global Policy

Regional Security through Inclusive Reform in the Maghreb and the Sahel

Regional Security through Inclusive Reform in the Maghreb and the Sahel

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

By: Querine Hanlon; Joyce A. Kasee

Throughout the Maghreb and the Sahel, governments are struggling to manage a security environment fundamentally transformed by the Arab Spring. Within this region, the efforts of governments to secure their territories and civil society organizations to create accountable and transparent security institutions have proceeded almost wholly divorced from each other. This Peace Brief shares key insights from the engagement between official and civil society actors both within and across borders t...

Type: Peace Brief

Justice, Security & Rule of Law; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications