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The Impact of Corruption on Security Sector Effectiveness, and What to do About It By: James Cohen | SSR | Dec 8, 2014

A string of recent global security failures has focused media and political attention on the impact of corruption on security sector operational effectiveness. Whereas corruption is often viewed by international actors as a costly annoyance with mostly local effects, there is increasing recognition of the significant risks it poses for both national and international security. In this post I highlight a couple of examples of how key international actors are beginning to take these risks more seriously and offer a few recommendations for effective anti-corruption programming within the context of security sector reform (SSR).

The Problem

In 2012, poorly equipped Malian soldiers rapidly lost territory and morale to a wave of well-armed rebels and foreign fighters descending from the north. In 2013, Kenyan security forces failed to detect and prevent a major terrorist attack on the busy Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi. In 2014, Nigerian security forces were unable to prevent the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls, to track their abductors or to locate where they were being held captive. At the same time, the Iraqi army, trained and equipped at vast expense, was quickly overrun by the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In all of these cases, serious concerns have been raised about the role of corruption in ignoring or aiding the activities of extremists, in covering up their identities and whereabouts, and in diverting the resources that were intended to be used to fight them.

The Response

In response to these types of security failures, and the risks they pose to its citizens and allies, the US recently announced its new Security Governance Initiative (SGI), aimed at supporting security sector reform in Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia. While much of the language to describe SGI focuses on strategic security threats, in particular to the US, emphasis is also placed on building accountable institutions and meeting citizen security needs, such as access to justice. While it is too early to tell whether this emphasis will prevail over more traditional ‘train and equip’ approaches, the recognition of the importance of governance and citizen-centered approaches is a step in the right direction in tackling the endemic corruption that is undermining the operational effectiveness of security services.

For its part, NATO specifically identified anti-corruption as a crucial aspect of its long-term SSR support to the Ukraine, where many believe corruption has played a significant role in undermining the Ukrainian army’s ability to deal with the separatist movement in the east. For instance, the Joint Statement of the NATO-Ukraine Commission states, “With Allied support, including through the Annual National Programme, Ukraine remains committed to the implementation of wide-ranging reforms, to combat corruption and to promote an inclusive political process, based on democratic values, respect for human rights, minorities and the rule of law.”


I recommend that security sector reform programs take into consideration the following areas to address corruption risk:

Holistic and politically sensitive engagement:

Addressing corruption cannot be a siloed and purely technical exercise. While support is necessary for building up institutions and training individuals to combat and mitigate corruption, political management is required. Combating corruption will create losers who previously benefited from nepotism, embezzlement, and payoffs. Programs need competent staff with diplomatic and mediation skills, well thought through risk maps and mitigation plans, and strong analysis as to how corruption networks operate in a local context. Security sector anti-corruption programs also need to take into account and complement national anti-corruption programs.

Corruption assessments:

Corruption plays itself out differently in each context. Tools to help analyse corruption should include stakeholder, political-economy, and institutional integrity analyses. In addition, following the money is important. For instance, Bernard Harborne highlights case study assessments in Côte d’Ivoire and Somaliland where following security sector revenues uncovered significant corruption and threats to the sustainability of security sector financing. 

Institution and procedure building

Procedures and standards that promote integrity and punish corruption need to be built up within security institutions. Achieving this includes security personnel identifying and prioritising their corruption risks, along with developing context specific plans that account for political challenges. Codes of conduct, procurement and career advancement processes, and legislation for whistleblowers need to be backed up with training, particularly amongst senior leadership, and oversight on their implementation.

Improving oversight:

Accountability for the use of state resources is crucial for combating corruption. The defence and security sectors pose two critical hurdles for accountability: 1) sensitive information; and 2) technical complexity.  There will always be a need for some level of secrecy within the security sector, but tactics such as labeling budgets as ‘state secrets’ demonstrate how this need can be easily abused. A healthy balance between secrecy and disclosure needs to be struck with civilians weighing in on the decision. Those responsible for oversight also need to understand what they are examining, which may call for expert advice. Finally, effective oversight institutions need to be established and maintained such as anti-corruption bodies, which without support get targeted for budget cuts.

Civil society and citizen voices:

Speaking out against the security sector can often be regarded as taboo in post-conflict or authoritarian countries, notably due to the personal risks of doing so. When the public does speak out, the tendency leans to criticism without an articulation of the kind of the security sector the public wants. Support to combat corruption needs to help facilitate a dialogue between the public and the security sector to the point that this is the norm. This does not just mean ‘awareness raising’ about corruption. Most citizens are well aware of corruption problems. Rather it means helping the public and civil society to examine how corruption works, and what are ways of calling for accountability. Additionally, the free press needs to be empowered as an important part of civil society oversight.

Placing more emphasis in these prevention programs can do far more for local, regional, and global security in the long run than continuing to rely on train and equip programs.


James Cohen is a security and development consultant with a specialization in anti-corruption. He gained his experience with the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and Transparency International. Further background can be found on LinkedIn and he can be followed on Twitter at @JamesCohen82.

This blog post first appeared on the DCAF-ISSAT Community of Practice.

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