By Calum Humphreys, Berghof Foundation, Junior Project Manager
Last month, Jim McGovern, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, penned a provocatively titled article, “South Sudan: The Road to a Living Hell, Paved with Peace Deals.” In it, McGovern highlighted how peace processes have helped to render South Sudan the most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index.
Transparency International’s bleak assessment of South Sudan’s corruption is, alas, widely shared. In a 2022 report, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated that “entrenched and systemic corruption is the greatest hindrance to peace and stability” in the country. For peacebuilding practitioners, McGovern lays down a challenge: he argues that we must adopt a new corruption-sensitive approach to conflict transformation in South Sudan, one which dismantles corrupt practices rather than legitimising them.
Of course, South Sudan is not a one-off. It is old news that the pursuit of peace is existentially threatened by the prevalence of corruption. Even small increases in corruption have been shown to dramatically damage the chances of sustainable peace. Peace process design, however, continues to neglect questions of corruption and resource distribution, entrenching the corrupt practices witnessed during conflict in the post-conflict phase and often with catastrophic consequences as in South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq among other areas.
The casualty is sustainable peace. And the lives of thousands who live in conflict-affected areas across the globe. This is not inevitable. It is the consequence of peacebuilders and anti-corruption practitioners alike travelling along, as CJL’s Diana Chigas has written, two roads that will never meet. What then can be done?
A new joint peacebuilding/anti-corruption agenda
What follows are five components of a new joint peacebuilding/anti-corruption agenda—from peace process design to implementation and beyond—that is urgently required to systematically address the symbiotic relationship between conflict and corruption.
Dr. Lara Olson and CJL's Co-Director, Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, wrote a response to U4/Berghof Foundation’s new report Breaking the Vicious Cycle. In their response, Olson and Scharbatke-Church advocate thoughtful caution when combining peacebuilding and anti-corruption initiatives.
1. Think systemically, locally & adaptively
Recognising from day one that conflict and corruption are two interdependent, interconnected elements of the same system is imperative. Post-conflict settlements, like those in Colombia and South Sudan, all too often come undone because they fail to address issues of accountability, integrity and transparency which emerge during the peace processes, often out of fear that their integration would undermine efforts to reach an agreement.
"Breaking the silos between the anti-corruption and peacebuilding communities is futile without agreeing on a common path forward and a pragmatic division of labour. It is up to us—peacebuilders and anti-corruption specialists—to develop that robust agenda together if we are serious about the peace we help create today lasting until tomorrow."
What’s needed is a contextually specific systems approach to examine the effect corruption has on peace processes as they evolve over time. Such an approach needs to be adaptive, considering corrupt practices and other political economy factors as potential drivers of conflict periodically, rather than depending on one-off analysis. This analysis also needs to consider, moreover, how issues of unequal resource distribution are gendered and how resource allocation and scarcity are particularly affected by environmental factors in conflict-affected areas. Here thinking about how anti-corruption could be addressed in inclusive decision-making processes such as those piloted in promoting gender-responsive approaches to natural resource management in North Kordofan, Sudan.
As part of the analytical process, research must involve collaboration with local actors and organisations, not only for reasons of inclusivity and ownership, but also because local perspectives are more likely to consider corrupt practices as drivers of conflict than non-local experts, who are often from the Global North.
Collaborative learning here would pay dividends for both communities of practice, with anti-corruption practitioners becoming better acquainted with dialogue and mediation processes, whereas their peacebuilding counterparts would come to better understand anti-corruption technical solutions. This means building on silo-breaking initiatives like the International Conference on Anti-corruption in Fragile States and the World Bank’s event on Corruption, Capture and Fragile Contexts.
2. Tolerate honesty & foster learning
Being honest about trade-offs and dilemmas involved in considering corruption as part of peace processes moves this joint agenda to the next stage. The zero-tolerance approach to corruption currently prescribed by most donors often has the unintended consequence of reinforcing hesitancy among peacebuilders to tackle corruption in peace processes directly. In its place, a more honest and nuanced approach can be applied, as advocated by Arne Strand in a phased approach to corruption in international aid. Good enough governance or valuing the halfway could be one part of the answer here.
Fostering an open and inclusive learning culture compliments this honesty—where mistakes and missteps are not only acknowledged but benefited from, where taboos can be broken. A starting point could be collaborating to create confidential spaces for introspection, learning, peer exchanges and constructive dialogue between peacebuilding and anti-corruption practitioners, such as the Berghof Foundation’s recent collaboration with U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre on a paper and public event on entry points for anti-corruption in inclusive peace processes, the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development’s 2019 sessions on corruption and peacebuilding, GIZ and U4’s joint session on Anti-corruption in Fragile States at the 2020 International Anti-Corruption Conference, and FriEnt Peace Building Forum’s 2021 session on exploring the vicious circle of corruption and conflict. One of the focuses could be how the labour could be realistically divided, strategic joint objectives established and practical synergies identified and expanded upon.
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3. Gradually create space for accountability
When thinking about what steps to take together and in which order, pursuing an alternative to the prioritization strategy in peace process sequencing, i.e., “peace first” justice, democracy, reconciliation and everything else second, does not necessarily mean tackling all issues related to conflict and corruption at once. It rather signifies a series of small, iterative and often indirect steps as advocated by Heather Marquette in her work on Afghanistan. What’s important is to sow the seeds during peace process design and implementation for future anti-corruption efforts to flourish, rather than tacking them on as an afterthought.
But what exactly would this look like? Concretely, this means developing starting points from which practitioners could create spaces to discuss principles of integrity, transparency, accountability, social justice, and political reform during peace talks among conflict parties. To succeed, these conversations need to be inclusive. Lederach’s peacebuilding tracks, ideally in a locally sensitive form, are useful in thinking about what this could entail across different stakeholder groups. A multi-track approach would allow integrity, transparency and accountability to be discussed more cautiously among track 1 interlocuters holding official positions, while being tackled more overtly with their track 2 and 3 counterparts among civil society and local actors. These discussions could ultimately lead to accountability, integrity and anti-corruption measures being negotiated into peace agreements in the form of “integrity provisions”.
These spaces would enable local stakeholders to express their expectations of accountability from conflict transformation and anti-corruption organisations, as well as donors, in an inclusive process of downward accountability, meaning that local stakeholders take ownership of these discussions and communicate integrity guidelines upwards as part of a wider democratic anti-corruption agenda. UNHCR Uganda’s Feedback, Referral and Response Mechanism (FRRM) has shown such a process can involve tools beyond solely dialogue meetings such as helplines, whistle-blower support and confidential, anonymous reporting of corruption and fraud.
"What’s important is to sow the seeds during peace process design and implementation for future anti-corruption efforts to flourish, rather than tacking them on as an afterthought."
4. Raid each other’s toolkits
When it comes to implementation, given the interdependence of violent conflict and corruption, peacebuilding and anti-corruption practitioners would benefit from familiarising themselves with each other’s toolkits and seeking opportunities to cross-pollinate their ideas. The establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions as part of peace processes merit particular exploration here. Corruption has conventionally been omitted from the mandates of such initiatives; however, commissions in Chad, Sierra Leone, Kenya and most explicitly in Tunisia, have addressed concerns over unequal resource distribution. More research into the relationship between peace processes and standalone corruption truth commissions, such as the Philippine Truth Commission and Bangladesh’s Truth and Accountability Commission, would also be helpful here.
Social accountability programming in fragile settings, such as pilot initiatives in Guinea, Niger, and Tajikistan, offers another fruitful line of joint enquiry. The Colombian experience in particular offers a wealth of potentially promising anti-corruption measures to strengthen peace processes, including participatory budgeting, community-based monitoring initiatives, citizen report cards and peace barometers, as well as a similar initiative in Guinea-Bissau. There may also be grounds to develop complementary pedagogical approaches in post conflict states which embraces anti-corruption education (ACE) alongside peace education as a means of building positive peace, as explored in the case of the Ubupfura Model in Rwanda.
5. Rally & protect allies for integration
Sustaining the fruits of implementation means rallying allies for this gradualist, integrated approach and considering inclusion at all tracks. Having gradually introduced these anti-corruption topics onto the peacebuilding agenda, peacebuilders should broaden the circle of discussants, including women, youth, and civil society actors among others. As including women and youth has proven to render peace processes more sustainable in the long term, their participation in an integrated approach to conflict and corruption is essential to its success. And women especially are at the forefront of grassroots anti-corruption efforts.
Rather than being gathered for ‘post-conflict’ governance programmes, allies should be won early on during negotiations and bargaining over a political settlement, and considered steps taken and funding allocated to protect them over the course of the peace process and beyond. External actors have a responsibility to help protect (and must not endanger) local change agents, whether inside or outside government, who often take considerable risks in pursuing their activism beyond their official mandates. Working with local media here could be one possible approach to pursue a corruption-sensitive form of peace journalism as a way of protecting allied activists and anti-corruption whistle-blowers, which has strongly been argued for in the case of Yemen.
"Peace process design continues to neglect questions of corruption and resource distribution, entrenching the corrupt practices witnessed during conflict in the post-conflict phase and often with catastrophic consequences."
Continue silo-breaking conversations
Zooming out, the coalitions needed to support this integrated agenda transcend conflict actors and local allies to include donors, practitioners, and peacebuilding organisations. Breaking the silos between the anti-corruption and peacebuilding communities is futile without agreeing on a common path forward and a pragmatic division of labour. It is up to us—peacebuilders and anti-corruption specialists—to develop that robust agenda together if we are serious about the peace we help create today lasting until tomorrow.
Calum Humphreys is a Junior Project Manager in the Yemen Unit. He previously worked as a Project Officer at Candid Foundation supporting creative dialogue and cross-cultural exchange projects in Libya and in other Middle Eastern contexts. He has also studied and worked in Egypt, interning at the Arab West Foundation in Cairo, an organisation promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding. He holds an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford, with a focus on Egyptian socio-political history and social movements, and a BA (Hons) in Spanish & Arabic from the University of Exeter.