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Combating corruption in post-war settings

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:15


Martin Tisné - Programme Director, Tiri


Kevin Savage - Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI


Alina Rocha Menocal - Research Fellow, Politics and Governance, ODI

Martin Tisné
Tiri has, since 2005, undertaken extensive research into integrity and corruption in eight post-conflict countries (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Lebanon, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and East Timor). What these countries have in common, according to Martin Tisné is the threat of a return to violence stemming from a serious tension between international financial flows, state capacities of absorbing these flows, and fulfilling the needs of the population. Together, these factors provide a foundation for flourishing and devastating forms of corruption.

He also noted that very little work has been undertaken into corruption in post-conflict countries, bridging the issues of fragile states with accountability and corruption. This lack of research is because corruption has not traditionally fitted into the usual focsu adopted by international donors, around issues like security, governance and humanitarian aid. Thus, Tiri's research project sets out to understand what makes these post-conflict countries different from other countries in terms of corruption, competence and accountability. The country case studies have been conducted in collaboration with local research partners and have, in some places, had notable results in terms of local capacity-building, for example the establishment of Integrity Watch Afghanistan.

In broad terms, these post-conflict countries have certain commonalities with regard to the interplay between international financial assistance, the government’s absorption capacity of this assistance, and the developmental need of the population. Three to four years beyond the reaching of a peace agreement (pottach), international financial spending is high, whilst at the same time, absorption levels for international aid are low. At this point, the country is at a high risk of corruption while, at the same time, the demand for accountability is low. People’s expectations for the future are also high.

After a further few years, international financial assistance decreases, the absorptive capacity of the country has recovered and the needs of the people have escalated. Corruption has by now become entrenched if it was not dealt with before. At this time, public perceptions of corruption have increased and there is a heightened demand for greater accountability. It is at this point that corruption becomes a threat to stability, because the increased demand for accountability from the public can be taken advantage of by opposition groups. This is exemplified by, for example, people turning to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban. In short, corruption and lack of integrity in post-conflict societies can lead to decreased support for the government, which in turn may lead to a return to violence.

Tisné stressed that it is not realistic to advocate zero corruption, but rather to understand that corruption may be an issue which can lead to destabilisation. Thus, the focus should be on areas at high risk of corruption, such as high value resources and drugs, privatisation, property rights, and state capture of public institutions. Moreover, he argued that corruption should not be studied in a vacuum, but rather there needs to be an understanding of 2 things: 1) people’s concerns about corruption and 2) the country’s vision of where it is heading. Hong Kong and Singapore are examples of countries that have taken successful measures against corruption.

With regard to what donors can do, Tisné argued that donors need to understand both past and current patterns of corruption in post-conflict countries and must adopt a holistic approach, while at the same time focusing on high-risk areas. Donors should also work to increase aid absorption capacity early after peace has been restored, through capacity-building. More critically, aid should not be capacity-reducing. This has typically resulted from off-budget assistance and from pressure on the speed of aid delivery. Capacity-building focus should also take advantage of domestic skills and resources in order to understand accountability on the ground. Methods of entrenching accountability include using local accountability resources and making information transparent and accessible to all. One issue that may be encountered is the tension between accountability towards donors and accountability towards citizens, as well as tension between local accountability praxis and international praxis.

The main recommendations for donors working in post-conflict states include:

  1. Act early and focus on corruption prevention
  2. Focus specifically on areas which are at a high risk of corruption
  3. Use bottom-up local accountability mechanisms, rather than focusing on formal anti-corruption institutions, such as anti-corruption commissions

Kevin Savage

Kevin Savage has undertaken research into corruption in humanitarian aid with a focus on NGOs. Together with Transparency International, he developed a toolkit for NGOs, aimed at managing the risks of corruption. He has also researched case studies on corruption in humanitarian aid in both Liberia and Afghanistan.

Savage stated that humanitarian aid practitioners often focus attention and resources on the issues of corruption at the expense of other priorities. He highlighted the risk of applying a notion of zero tolerance to corruption in humanitarian aid which could disrupt aid to a greater cost than the cost of tolerating some degree of corruption. NGOs may also have unrealistically high expectations with regard to what they can accomplish in the fight against corruption. That said, humanitarian aid organisations have started to become more focused on increasing accountability and transparency within their own organisations and he agreed with Martin Tisné that an emphasis on corruption prevention should be made early on in the reconstruction phase.

Another issue highlighted by Savage was the difficulty often experienced by NGOs in attempting to understand corruption from a local perspective, i.e. what is understood to be corruption in one country may be publicly acceptable behaviour in another country.


Comments and questions raised during the discussion included:

  • On local accountability mechanisms from the bottom-up, should local grass-roots organisations engage in state-level measure, i.e. anti-corruption commissions? Martin Tisné replied that understanding local incentives is key to increasing accountability conversations between people at the grass-roots and the state.
  • How fast and to what extent can aid agencies realistically be expected to tackle corruption? Martin Tisné replied that there is a culture of engaging with and empowering the community in and of itself and the benefits that stem from anti-corruption efforts reach further than just aid effectiveness.
  • Aid agencies have made great efforts to understand and combat corruption but have often failed because their actions do not always co-exist with wider governance changes happening in the country, i.e. their measures may have worked against the direction of political events (notably DFID’s work in Sierra Leone in the mid-90s, for example). Martin Tisné replied that a hard-core focus on corruption may not work; instead, an integrity approach should be applied.
  • What if the peace process itself is corrupt - should the analysis and anti-corruption work start at this stage?  Martin Tisné replied that yes, the earlier the work starts, the better, and starting at this stage would be preferable and can be worthwhile, however this should not detract from the importance of focusing on anti-corruption in the post-conflict phase.
  • When corruption has become entrenched, should the focus be on leadership (a top-down approach), or can, for example, small businesses affect the levels of corruption (a bottom-up approach)? Martin Tisné replied that there is a need for both approaches, and to focus on leaders at all levels. The business focus is interesting because it deals with incentives and is thus more sustainable.
  • Countries that are undergoing change are more prone to high levels of corruption. Martin Tisné responded that in unstable environments, we cannot expect OECD-like vertical and horizontal accountabilities, but it is still possible to have a strategic approach to corruption.
  • Local accountability strategies should be observed and discussed, for example, local sharia law courts in southern Afghanistan. This is a local practice and for that reason we might not accept them from a donor perspective. Martin Tisné replied that local accountability mechanisms are not necessarily good in and of themselves, but we do need to know how to deal with these issues when they arise.


Attention to corruption has not typically been a programming priority in post-war settings. Between the exigencies of securing peace, responding to humanitarian crises, large-scale public institution-building and economic development, fighting corruption has either been seen as secondary, or as an obstacle to peace. A growing body of national and international policy-makers is now debating how anti-corruption measures in these settings may be most effective. Corruption can be a major destabilising factor, but so can anti-corruption measures gone wrong.

At this ODI event, Martin Tisné from Tiri will review integrity reforms that have been undertaken in post-war settings, put forth some recommendations about those best placed to succeed in these environments, and present an analytical framework that can tip the balance in favour of positive recovery.

Over the past two years, Tiri, an independent non-governmental organisation that works with governments, business and civil society organisations to find practical solutions to making integrity work, has led a team of researchers from eight post-war countries to study factors that may improve the chances for and quality of post-war recovery.