You are here: Home / Resources / Frontpage Articles / The Role of Corruption in Peacebuilding

The Role of Corruption in Peacebuilding

In this Featured Research Article commissioned by the Anti-Corruption Research Network, authors Dominik Zaum and Christine Cheng explore the challenges and complexities of combating corruption in the peacebuilding process.

This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of ACRN News, the quarterly newsletter of the Anti-Corruption Research Network. The full issue can be found here.  


Corruption and Peacebuilding

By Dominik Zaum, University of Reading; Christine Cheng, University of Oxford*

Corruption has become an increasingly salient issue in war to peace transitions, both for the populations of war-torn countries and for the international and regional organisations, donor governments, and NGOs who are supporting peacebuilding efforts. War-torn states are recognised as highly susceptible to corruption: their administrative and judicial institutions are weak, and they lack the capacity to monitor and enforce rules against corruption. Lingering social divisions from the war weaken shared conceptions of the public good and social norms that could otherwise constrain corrupt behaviour. There is extensive evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, of the prevalence of corruption in conflict-affected countries, which tend to cluster in the bottom of corruption indices such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the World Bank’s Governance Indicators.1

Corruption has also been identified by scholars and practitioners alike as a major obstacle to peacebuilding efforts. It is claimed that corruption undermines state legitimacy and effectiveness by distorting the distribution of public goods; complicates states’ abilities to manage and resolve social conflicts; and potentially (re)ignites conflict and causes violence by fuelling political, economic, and social grievances and by weakening security institutions.2 Despite the broad range of social ills that have been attributed to corruption in peacebuilding contexts, the ways in which corruption actually affects peacebuilding efforts is less straightforward and less well understood than some of the literature seems to suggest.

Understanding corruption in post-conflict environments

Three related problems help explain why much of the peacebuilding literature treats corruption in such a simplistic fashion. The first problem is epistemic. Corruption data is difficult to gather and the practicalities of working in post-conflict environments make this an even greater challenge. The very nature of the subject is more likely to produce anecdotal rather than systematic data. Where there have been attempts to collect data systematically, these have focused on corruption perception surveys capturing the experiences of corruption of  the business community, corruption experts, or the broader population. While Important, this data does not measure corruption at the level of crafting and implementing the elite bargains that lie at the core of most peacebuilding efforts. Afghanistan offers a pertinent example: one of the most detailed surveys of Afghan corruption focuses almost exclusively on the abominable scale of corruption in the police, judiciary, and the administration, and its substantial social and economic costs.3 However, this data does not capture how corruption at the elite level binds local and regional power brokers to the state, and has provided for a degree of stability and governance in particular in parts of Northern Afghanistan that markedly distinguish it from other parts of the country.4

 The second problem is that the content of corruption changes across different social and cultural contexts, and practices considered corrupt in some contexts might be considered as proper and legitimate in others. In many peacebuilding contexts, corruption is part of what Douglass North and his co-authors have described as the social logic of a post-war order, and central to the maintenance of that order.5 For elites, corruption is critical to access the resources that are needed to fulfill demands for patronage and services, often arising from kinship obligations. For non-elites, engaging in corruption may be necessary to fulfill the most basic needs, even while they are aware of the detrimental effects of participating in this type of political economy.

The third related problem is that corruption and its impact is often understood by donors and analysts through the lens of the relationship between state and citizens, focussing on its effects on a notional social contract and the legitimacy of the state. Little attention is given to the ways in which corruption impacts the relationships of different societal groups both to the state and to each other, and how it can marginalise, but also tie these groups to the state and the emerging post-war order.

There is now a growing acknowledgement that corruption in peacebuilding contexts can help to stabilise the emerging post-conflict political order, at least in the short-to medium term. Most importantly, opportunities for corruption and rent-seeking can provide incentives for armed groups to enter into a peace agreement; and can be central to the maintenance of stabilising networks of patronage that are inherent in the elite bargain at the heart of most peace processes. Peacebuilders might therefore tacitly and pragmatically accept corruption and literally ‘purchase’ peace, even if they try to put into place institutions to contain it in the longer run.

There are undoubtedly substantial social costs associated with such an approach. Stability relies on co-opting local elites to implement wider peacebuilding objectives. However, while the interests of these elites might overlap with those of international peacebuilders, they are unlikely to be congruent. Divergent interests, and the better understanding of local conditions that these elites possess, are likely to inhibit substantive anti-corruption reforms. Co-opting war-time networks into the peace process can also weaken state institutions, entrench inequity, and impart a sense of impunity.

Corruption and the role of the peacebuilders 

Peacebuilders need to recognise the impact of their own practices on corruption, as their extensive involvement in the political economy of post-conflict states not only entrusts them with a critical role in a country’s war-to-peace transition, but also contributes to structuring opportunities for corruption. To understand the character of corruption in many conflict-affected countries, its impact on peacebuilding operations, and to develop strategies to contain it, it is important to understand how contemporary peacebuilding policies and practices can fuel it. Three aspects of contemporary peacebuilding practices in particular deserve closer inspection.

First, the rapid inflow of aid associated with most peacebuilding operations distorts local economies and provides ample opportunities for rent-seeking. While the capacity to absorb aid is limited in the immediate aftermath of conflict, annual assistance to countries such as Liberia or Afghanistan has amounted to multiples of local GDP, and regulatory frameworks governing these sudden inflows of money are often weak.6

Second, one of the primary concerns of international peacebuilders is the return of violent conflict, which could threaten the legitimacy of peacebuilding efforts and the credibility of the states and organisations involved.7 This prioritisation of stability over transforming war-time structures has often made both international and local peacebuilders reluctant to challenge corruption amongst actors with a capacity for violence for fear that they might directly threaten the peacebuilding process if the structures and practices sustaining their power or wealth are threatened.

Third, the emphasis on early post-conflict elections, which has characterised most peacebuilding operations, can fuel and entrench corruption. Studies have demonstrated how clientelistic politics, the increased ability of rent-seekers to access public officials, and the weak institutional checks and balances associated with democratisation processes all increase opportunities for corruption and reduce the risk of getting caught.8 However, despite calls to delay elections and focus on ‘institutionalisation before liberalisation’9, postponing elections is often not feasible. Not only is there often strong local demand for elections, but elections are also important for the selection of a legitimate local leadership.

 Better analysis is needed for more effective anti-corruption policies in the peacebuilding process

The relationship between peacebuilding and corruption is complex and cannot simply be framed as a trade-off between corruption and development, corruption and good governance, or corruption and stability. It is also not susceptible to simple and universalist policy prescriptions. Just like peace, corruption is a political problem that cannot be addressed through technical fixes alone. In practice, this means that establishing anti-corruption institutions and reforming public administrations are unlikely to be effective without real political support from local political elites. This will hold true no matter how generously funded or well-designed a donor’s anti-corruption initiative may be. Corruption is difficult to tackle because in conflict-affected countries it is a rational response to the constraints that people face. Without understanding and addressing these underlying incentives for corrupt behaviour, anti-corruption reforms are likely to fail.


* This article draws on the findings from the contributions to Christine Cheng and Dominik Zaum (eds.), Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Selling the Peace? (Abingdon: Routledge 2011). Dominik Zaum is Reader in International Relations at the University of Reading. Christine Cheng is Bennet Boskey Fellow in Politics and International Relations at Exeter College, University of Oxford. 



1. In the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), 10 of the 11 countries with a CPI score lower than 2 (‘highly corrupt’) were classified by the Uppsala Conflict Database as experiencing conflict. The one exception is Turkmenistan.

2.  M. O’Donnell, ‘Post-conflict corruption: a rule of law agenda?’ in A. Hurwitz & R. Huang (eds.), Civil War and the Rule of Law: Security, Development, and Human Rights (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007), pp. 225-59; R. Rotberg (ed.), Corruption, Global Security, and World Order (Washington D.C.: Brookings, 2009)

3.  L. Delesgues & Y. Torabi, Afghan Perceptions and Experiences of Corruption: A National Survey 2010 (Kabul: Integrity Watch Afghanistan, 2010)

4. D. Mukhopadhyay, ‘Disguised Warlordism and Combatanthood in Balkh: the persistence of informal power in the formal Afghan state’, Conflict, Security, and Development, 9(4): 536-63, 2009; J. Goodhand, ‘Corrupting or consolidating the peace? The drug economy and post-conflict peacebuilding in Afghanistan’, in C. Cheng & D. Zaum (eds.), Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Selling the Peace? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp. 144-161

5. D. North et al., “Limited Access Orders in the Developing World: A New Approach to the Problem of Development”, World Bank Policy Research Paper, no. 4359, 2007; D. Chabal & J.P. Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999)

6. S. von Billerbeck, ‘Aiding the state or aiding corruption? Aid and corruption in post-conflict countries’, in C. Cheng & D. Zaum (eds.), Corruption and Post-conflict Peacebuilding: Selling the Peace? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp. 80-96

7. M. Barnett & C. Zuercher, ‘The Peacebuilders’ Contract: How External Statebuilding Reinforces Weak Statehood’, in R. Paris & T. Sisk (eds.), Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Post-War Peace Operations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 23-52

8. M. Rock, Corruption and Democracy (New York:  UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, 2007)

9. R. Paris, At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Author :

11 Jan 2012

Bookmark and Share

Document Actions

Our partner