Where there is corruption in the defence sector, democracy and human security suffer; terrorism, organised crime, and instability thrive; public resources are diverted or stolen on a grand scale; and armed forces may be ineffective.
In fragile environments, the corrupt have robbed millions of the proceeds of their economic endeavours, fuelling explosive responses – from violent extremism to political revolution. There is a wealth of evidence which points to a strong link between corruption and conflict. A study from Afghanistan showed that the primary motivation of Taliban recruits was frustration with the abuse of official power. Similarly Boko Haram’s appeal for a strict Islamic state in Nigeria was underpinned by an argument that this would address the ills of society, including corruption, bad governance and human rights abuses.
The threat of corruption is not limited to the most evidently fragile states. Corruption can sow the seed of uprisings in even seemingly stable and prosperous countries if those in power do too little too late to share the proceeds of development, engage their populations in debate, or deliver on basic expectations. A recent empirical study found ‘tipping points’— points at which a small increase in corruption can translate into a large increase in the following: political terror, political instability, violent crime rates, violent demonstrations, organised crime, access to small arms and light weapons, homicide rates, and level of perceived criminality.
Corruption within the defence and security sector degrades any nation’s ability to provide security. It can mean soldiers operating with equipment that doesn’t work, or with no equipment at all – such as in Ukraine, where it has been cheaper for a citizen to bribe his way out of military service than to buy the equipment that the Ministry of Defence fails to provide its soldiers with; or it can destroy morale – such as in Nigeria, where soldiers have deserted in unprecedented numbers as a result of the theft of the basic supplies and resources they need to fight; or in the worst cases, whole armies can fall apart – such as in Iraq, where a decade of effort and billions of pounds has delivered poorly coordinated institutions where accountability is so low that an estimated 50,000 ghost soldiers are on their payrolls.
Our own work documents many more examples, from the armed forces smuggling weapons over the Tunisian border, to Afghanistan, where large quantities of financial and practical support poured into weak institutions often did more harm than good when weapons and even training were at a high risk of being diverted.
Defence and security institutions consume a huge proportion of public spending. In 2014 global defence spending reached $1,776bn, the equivalent to 2.3 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP). The vast amounts of money involved, together with highly secretive (often unjustified) and centralised decision making, expose this sector to significant corruption risks. We have estimated that the financial cost of corruption in the defence sector is, at a minimum, $20bn a year. The theft of national budgets that this represents has a significant impact in terms of the missed opportunities to invest in health, education and infrastructure.
Governments should be supported by transparent defence institutions that are accountable to ordinary people and whose primary purpose is the protection of all citizens. The defence industry supporting these institutions should provide capability based on clear national defence strategies in a fair and open market, and be held to account through effective and independent oversight mechanisms rooted in functioning civil societies and efficient government procurement.
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