Raising the Stakes for Anti-Corruption

Photo Credit: US Army Europe (via Flickr)

Corruption is like a cancer, draining the health of an economy if it is allowed to spread unchecked. In fact, it’s such an insidious problem that in 2016 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated the direct cost of bribery alone to the global economy to be between $1.5 and $2 trillion annually. And there’s a long list of what that figure doesn’t include: other forms of corruption apart from bribery, indirect costs of corruption like lost tax revenue and lost economic opportunities for the poor, and intangibles like public distrust of institutions and eroded governance. (And a note to the discerning readers – this conservative IMF estimate even factors in methodological considerations such as varied understandings of corruption, perceived vs. actual levels of corruption, and aggregating indices.)

But let’s take a step back for just a moment and consider the why: why is corruption bad? In practice, corruption is an unfortunate part of many people’s lives and can serve to “grease the wheels” of inefficient government bureaucracy or adhere to local customs of reciprocity. Considering corruption in the aggregate, though, the OECD responds with three economic arguments: corruption distorts markets, erodes the quality of public projects, and perpetuates poverty by diverting resources and opportunity from the poor. Finally, underpinning these economic arguments is the ethical argument – the obvious injustice of it all. Corruption allows those with power – whether private companies or public officials (and this distinction is often blurred) – to extract resources from the public, who often have little recourse.

Over the past few years, a new argument has developed to exist alongside the economic and ethical arguments against corruption. This body of research states that the anti-corruption imperative may also derive from a security consideration. Sarah Chayes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is one of the research movement’s principal voices. Chayes, who advised Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen on governance issues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, maintains that corruption “is helping to drive many people into the folds of extremist movements and indeed lies at the root of many of today’s security crises.”

Chayes writes that the helplessness experienced by individuals subjected to incessant corruption predisposes them to join extremist networks, who in turn employ anti-corruption rhetoric in their propaganda (ironically, as extremist groups regularly employ corrupt practices). In Afghanistan, Chayes recounts interviews with Taliban insurgents who cited government corruption more frequently than a strictly religious rationale for joining the movement. Additionally, a new report by Transparency International UK backs this thesis with case studies evaluating anti-corruption recruitment narratives by ISIS, extremist groups in Libya, and Boko Haram. A further case study on the June 2014 fall of the Iraqi army details the process by which acute corruption hollows out security forces and thus undermines national security.

Although researchers acknowledge that it is probably impossible to determine the exact pathways by which an individual radicalizes (the same difficulty as predicting any life choice), it is clear from Chayes’ and others’ research that corruption in the aggregate is a driver of insecurity. As such, it makes sense to elevate anti-corruption arguments to the same level of urgency that other security threats command.

Skeptics may respond, “Wait, what does this have to do with the private sector? Aren’t the disaffected individuals reacting against a corrupt public sector?” Not exclusively. Although many of the examples cited by Chayes and others feature corrupt judges, police, and other officials, it would be a mistake to assume that people are unaware of corporate corruption, or that corporate corruption does not affect and infuriate them. Besides, in many countries, the public-private line is blurred, with the government controlling large parts of the economy or having corrupt relationships with certain corporations. Finally, governments who allow rampant corruption within the private sector to go unchecked are themselves engaging in corruption, undermining their legitimacy, and eroding governance and accountability norms. Although more narrow research would be useful for surmising whether there is a relationship between public attitudes on corporate corruption and support for extremist groups, it would be exceedingly difficult to disentangle the public and private concepts.

So what would “securitizing” corruption mean for corporate compliance? In practice, securitization would require policymakers to raise the bar for anti-corruption compliance by corporations. For governments this might mean more monitoring, tougher sanctions for violators, and perhaps even the attention of new regulatory and compliance regimes within the security apparatus. For corporations, this would require a more expansive understanding of corporate responsibility – extending from the social to the security realm. Educating employees on the real-life security ramifications of corruption and the damage it inflicts on peace and security is a place to start.

Finally, would adding a security lens to the current economic and ethical arguments actually induce better compliance? The answer to this question isn’t obvious, but there are some precedents. Securitization has most recently proved a useful concept for mobilizing political action on the issue of migration. Western countries’ increasingly strict immigration laws are motivated in large part by fears over recent terrorist attacks in Europe. Separately, the securitization of foreign aid still plays better with some audiences than others. As such, it appears that adding a security rationale to an issue does not always provoke a Pavlovian response in policymakers. At the same time, the attempt probably couldn’t hurt. Given the colossal damages corruption inflicts on the global economy, governance and the global poor, any extra tool in the anti-corruption arsenal may prove useful. However, as with the migration and foreign aid debates, the security rationale cannot displace the economic and ethical arguments without its advocates losing credibility amongst the very people they mean to help.

Emilia San Miguel is a Program Assistant for the Deputy Director of Programs at CIPE