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Our future is safer without corruption: Stories of the human toll of corruption in defence and security

23rd May 2024

Corruption has serious effects on development, human rights, peace and security. But too often it is viewed as a bureaucratic crime and its real-life impact on people is still overlooked and underestimated.  

International processes have the power to change this. The 2024 Summit of the Future in September can be a “roadmap to getting things right” – but so far, the agenda includes very little about corruption. On the margins of the UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi in May, our webinar aimed to put it on the map.  

In this blog, Emily Wegener, our Evidence and Advocacy Officer, summarises the key takeaways from the webinar.  

Betrayed by the Guardians: The Human Toll of Corruption in Defence and Security from Transparency International UK on Vimeo.


When we think about corruption, our first thought is often about the culprits: politicians stealing large amounts of public money, businesspeople bribing officials to get their way, officials handing out contracts to friends or family. Public discussions as well as policy solutions often centre around political ramifications and changes to technical processes.  

As a result, we often think of corruption as a purely bureaucratic crime. The human suffering that it inflicts on populations across the world every day remains silent. To give it a voice, Transparency International Defence & Security published its latest briefing, Betrayed by the Guardians: The Human Toll of Corruption in Defence and Security. Sharing five personal experiences of corruption in defence and security from around the globe, drawn from first-hand conversations with those willing to give  testomony, and from investigations conducted by media and international organisations, it sheds light on the dramatic and direct effects on peace, security, and stability caused by corruption in the notoriously secretive and closed off defence and security sector. 

The panellists at our launch event on May 8 gave testimony to what happens when the very institutions responsible for the protection of civilians fail to fulfil their mandate, act with impunity, and break public trust. Here is what they said:  

  • Peggy Chukwuemeka, Executive Director of the Parent-Child Intervention in Nigeria, shared how her home region in Southeast Nigeria went from being one of the most peaceful parts of the country to one of the most unsafe. She told how violence by non-state armed groups led to the deployment of state security forces to the region. Random and unjustified checks on civilians, which seemed more like a demonstration of power, and extortion of bribes by security forces occurred frequently. But those affected were often scared to speak up or lacked safe reporting mechanisms. Peggy explained how the violence also had gendered dimensions, due to lack of female security personnel to make women in the communities feel safer, and higher vulnerability of female community members to violence and extortion.
  • Sayed Ikram Afzali, Chief Executive Officer of Integrity Watch, Transparency International’s Chapter in Afghanistan, shared his experiences from participating in the country’s National Procurement Commission. He heard reports that the soldiers were receiving much less food than they were supposed due to ongoing corruption in the military’s procurement system. The president of the commission ordered  a committee to be formed to investigate this claim, but even the formation of this committee, or any other kind of independent oversight of the security sector, was blocked by corrupt political networks. Surveys by Integrity Watch showed how examples like this inflicted high and ever-increasing bribe payments on an already impoverished population. Ultimately, pervasive and little-addressed corruption in the Afghan National Security Forces enabled the complete breakdown of their ability to function, which made the rapid Taliban takeover in 2021 possible.
  • Jacob Tetteh Ahuno, Programmes Officer at Ghana Integrity Initiative, Transparency International’s chapter in Ghana, shared how citizens in the border regions observed vehicles carrying goods in and out of the country via unapproved routes. Bribery of security guards stationed along these roads is one of the reasons why some of these vehicles were able to smuggle weapons into the country, which are then used by non-state armed groups to terrorise local communities. 
  • Najla Dowson-Zeidan, our former Advocacy and Engagement Manager and lead author of Betrayed by the Guardians, explained how, while writing the briefing, she found the common theme in the stories to be those with power abusing their power at the expense of vulnerable people, for their own profit. The title of the publication reflected how we rely on defence and security forces to protect our lives and security, so when corruption occurs in these sectors leading to people’s lives becoming endangered and unsafe, these forces have betrayed their mandate.  

What these stories show us is that the consequences of corruption go far beyond the economic and the political. It is a social issue, a development issue, and a human rights issue. But what can be done to improve the situation? And how can upcoming ‘big moments’ at the international level, such as the Summit of the Future and its key outcome, the Pact for the Future, be a pathway to much-needed systemic change?  

The speakers and audience at our webinar made several suggestions for what UN Member States can do this September at the Summit of the Future to accelerate systemic change:  

  • Acknowledge the devastating impact that corruption, as a root cause and consequence of conflict, has on human lives and livelihoods, and the pressing need to holistically address it across all sectors. 
  • Include clear commitments on addressing corruption in the Pact for the Future that include clear targets and objectives, and resourcing to achieve this. 
  • Learn from cases like Afghanistan by acknowledging corruption as a national security priority, especially in fragile contexts, and responding to it through a whole-of-society approach with a strong and supported civil society. 
  • Bridge the gaps between different policy communities so that corruption is no longer seen as separate from development, peace and security, and these communities come closer together to work on tackling these issues. 
  • Increase the transparency of defence budgets and allow for more independent oversight to enable civil society and the media to tackle corruption and increase accountability for human rights abuses of defence and security forces. 

The stories shared in our briefing and during the webinar paint a clear picture of the devastation and suffering caused by corruption. The time for change is now: The Summit of the Future offers a once-in-a-decade opportunity to bring forward innovative, ambitious and impactful systemic change to end corruption. Tackling it is a core part of our journey to sustainable peace and development. Our future is safer without corruption – let’s make a Pact that saves lives.