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  • Writer's pictureCheyanne Scharbatke-Church - CJL

Weaponization, Retaliation, Diversion, Mobilization, Division – Oh my!!!

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL

The Corruption, Justice & Legitimacy (CJL) team has been exploring what is known about if, when, and how, anti-corruption (AC) may accidentally fuel conflict, as part of our work to deepen the understanding of the conflict-corruption relationship. This dynamic has long captured our attention and was, in fact, the original catalyst for CJL.  

The intent behind this exploration is not to discourage AC in conflict contexts. Quite the contrary! Corruption is often a driver of conflict, so if ignored, it can undermine peacebuilding and development goals. Our belief is that AC needs to become more attuned to the interaction with conflict dynamics (called conflict sensitivity) and mitigate accordingly.  


What we found

After our initial literature review found scant scholarship or evaluations on the issue, we broadened our scope and added interviews with practitioners from conflict-affected places. Our preliminary findings suggest implementation, intended results, and ineffective or distorted results, can trigger negative impacts.  

1. Does how you run your anti-corruption effort fuel conflict?  

Two of the possible negative impacts arise from how the work is done. This means the choices made when designing or implementing a program, or working in an AC institution.  

Resources can be distributed to some groups over others, reinforcing divisions along conflict lines.  

All AC programs bring some form of resources into the context, be they financial, access to opportunities, status or equipment. In conflict contexts in particular, people note who is benefiting or who is not.  

Consider this hypothetical case: the Inspector General’s office, led by a respected lawyer known for firewalling her office from presidential politics, rolls out a program to build municipal-level compliance capacity. Selection is based on compliance scores published annually by a thinktank. Lower-scoring municipalities are offered training programs, networking opportunities with senior officials, and international study visits. Their staff typically come from one clan in a frozen conflict. Those from other clans perceive preferential treatment by the government, supporting their belief that the state is not a neutral player, and fuelling division.  

Anti-corruption measures can legitimate enemy images through divisive messaging that associates corruption with specific groups.

Conflict-blind AC messages can be refracted through the lens of grievance and division to reinforce negative images of ‘the other.’ In contexts where the government represents one side of a conflict, for instance, AC campaigns focusing on the extent of government corruption can unintentionally reinforce divisions. Or, in countries where conflict is along regional lines, the publishing of corruption statistics from a particular region by an Anti-corruption Commission could be perceived as a partisan act, reinforcing a negative image of ‘the other.’  

2. Can a successful anti-corruption outcome fuel conflict?

The success of an AC effort – measured as reduced corruption – or the fear of its success, can inflame conflict. The actual or potential damaging impact on key stakeholders’ interests or wellbeing may lead them to act to protect those interests, which then exacerbates conflict. 

Anti-corruption can meet resistance from their targets, who incite violence along conflict lines to retain their gains from corruption.

In endemically corrupt contexts, when an AC effort threatens position, power or access to wealth, a violent response is always a concern. The stakes are higher in divided societies as larger groups can be mobilized around volatile intergroup grievances. For instance, a ‘big fish’ receiving a guilty verdict in a money laundering case calls their supporters to the streets to protest the ‘attack on the group.’  

AC efforts that show potential for success can also motivate actors to mobilize their supporters. Imagine corrupt police officers in a tense post-conflict society facing new measures that would dramatically curtail their lucrative extortion racket. Officers use their connections with existing militias to increase civic unrest related to the broader conflict so that police leadership have more pressing concerns – and the measures get derailed.  

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Anti-corruption measures that threaten the survival of people in divided societies can lead them to support conflict leaders or to join armed groups.

Consider an AC program that seeks to diminish the illicit flow of goods across the border. As supervisors crack down on border guards, small-scale traders are less able to continue to cross and offer small incentives to these guards. With the AC measures threatening their means of survival, desperation could drive these individuals to join armed groups or to support the separatist militias who aim to remove the central government’s presence at the border stations.  

Anti-corruption efforts that disrupt the ability of criminal or political groups to finance themselves, can lead to more violence against individuals and communities, and escalate existing conflicts.

Here, it is not only the disruption of the financial flows to armed actors, but also the threat of disruption that could mean violent repercussions for individuals – a known ethical concern for AC practice. But in divided societies, targeted violence against individuals can inflame existing grievances against the factions perpetrating the violence.  

3. Can distorted or ineffective results of anti-corruption have negative impacts on conflict?

The inadvertent fuelling of conflict can be exacerbated by the distortion of AC measures and the consequences of ineffective AC theories of change.

Anti-corruption instruments can be weaponized against opponents and fuel conflict when people on one side of pre-existing societal or intergroup divisions are selectively targeted.

This harm can be caused by a distortion of the intended results of an AC program. Consider a police professionalization program lobbying for the adoption of a Code of Conduct. If successful, the Code might be weaponized against minority service members to drive them out. Or an established anti-corruption court could be weaponized through the manipulation of case review criteria, where most of the cases taken forward target the political opposition that represents one side of the conflict in a post-conflict power-sharing government.  

Anti-corruption efforts that highlight the extent of state corruption or impunity can delegitimize state institutions and contribute to legitimizing violent resistance.

AC efforts that unrealistically raise the public’s expectations may fuel conflict, as cynicism prevails if the effort is ineffective and expectations are not met. Consider a campaign aiming to raise awareness about procurement fraud in government contracting. While increasing the public’s knowledge of the issue, if there is not a positive outcome, the resulting cynicism can fuel division. 

"Corruption is often a driver of conflict, so if ignored, it can undermine peacebuilding and development goals."

What now for donors and practitioners?

To adapt conflict-sensitivity frameworks, we need a more granular understanding of when, why, and how likely these negative impacts on conflict occur. This requires more systemic, quality research, which takes time. In the immediate term, here are some useful steps for donors and practitioners:  

1.     Evaluation: As part of the OECD DAC impact criteria, AC programs in conflict-affected areas should include a standard conflict-sensitivity question in evaluations. Simultaneously, evaluation departments should be compiling the results across programs to bolster the evidence base and inform better practice.

2.     Reflective Practice: Regular reflection sessions on the possible impact of the programming on conflict could increase the team’s conflict sensitivity and identify concrete concerns. 

3.     Apply Existing Policy: Donors with conflict-sensitivity policies review how consistently the policy is applied to their AC portfolios. Current conflict-sensitivity frameworks appear to be ‘good enough’ for identifying mitigating options for those impacts catalysed by design and implementation choices. 

Determine new ways to respond to the inherently conflictual nature of anti-corruption

For the harms generated by AC results, the existing conflict-sensitivity repertoire may not be adequate. Effective AC measures block access to illicit power and wealth and can contribute to a shift in power dynamics in a conflict context. This is inherently conflictual and much more politically sensitive than typical humanitarian and development work for which the existing conflict-sensitivity frameworks were developed.  

Applying these generic tools may result in the decision to not proceed due to the potential impact on conflict. More finely tuned conflict sensitivity should help us develop new options and strategies for reaching our goals. They must be able to recognize the necessarily conflictual nature of some of the AC agenda and determine new ways to respond. This is where research needs to happen.  


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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