The Impact of Corruption on Security Sector Effectiveness, and What to do About It

by James Cohen · December 4th, 2014.

A string of recent global security failures has focused media and political attention on the impact of corruption on security sector operational effectiveness. Whereas corruption is often viewed by international actors as a costly annoyance with mostly local effects, there is increasing recognition of the significant risks it poses for both national and international security. In this post I highlight a couple of examples of how key international actors are beginning to take these risks more seriously and offer a few recommendations for effective anti-corruption programming within the context of security sector reform (SSR).

The Problem

In 2012, poorly equipped Malian soldiers rapidly lost territory and morale to a wave of well-armed rebels and foreign fighters descending from the north. In 2013, Kenyan security forces failed to detect and prevent a major terrorist attack on the busy Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi. In 2014, Nigerian security forces were unable to prevent the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls, to track their abductors or to locate where they were being held captive. At the same time, the Iraqi army, trained and equipped at vast expense, was quickly overrun by the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In all of these cases, serious concerns have been raised about the role of corruption in ignoring or aiding the activities of extremists, in covering up their identities and whereabouts, and in diverting the resources that were intended to be used to fight them.

The Response

In response to these types of security failures, and the risks they pose to its citizens and allies, the US recently announced its new Security Governance Initiative (SGI), aimed at supporting security sector reform in Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia. While much of the language to describe SGI focuses on strategic security threats, in particular to the US, emphasis is also placed on building accountable institutions and meeting citizen security needs, such as access to justice. While it is too early to tell whether this emphasis will prevail over more traditional ‘train and equip’ approaches, the recognition of the importance of governance and citizen-centered approaches is a step in the right direction in tackling the endemic corruption that is undermining the operational effectiveness of security services.

For its part, NATO specifically identified anti-corruption as a crucial aspect of its long-term SSR support to the Ukraine, where many believe corruption has played a significant role in undermining the Ukrainian army’s ability to deal with the separatist movement in the east. For instance, the Joint Statement of the NATO-Ukraine Commission states, “With Allied support, including through the Annual National Programme, Ukraine remains committed to the implementation of wide-ranging reforms, to combat corruption and to promote an inclusive political process, based on democratic values, respect for human rights, minorities and the rule of law.”


I recommend that security sector reform programs take into consideration the following areas to address corruption risk: 

Holistic and politically sensitive engagement:

Addressing corruption cannot be a siloed and purely technical exercise. While support is necessary for building up institutions and training individuals to combat and mitigate corruption, political management is required. Combating corruption will create losers who previously benefited from nepotism, embezzlement, and payoffs. Programs need competent staff with diplomatic and mediation skills, well thought through risk maps and mitigation plans, and strong analysis as to how corruption networks operate in a local context. Security sector anti-corruption programs also need to take into account and complement national anti-corruption programs. 

Corruption assessments:

Corruption plays itself out differently in each context. Tools to help analyse corruption should include stakeholder, political-economy, and institutional integrity analyses. In addition, following the money is important. For instance, Bernard Harborne highlights case study assessments in Côte d’Ivoire and Somaliland where following security sector revenues uncovered significant corruption and threats to the sustainability of security sector financing.

Institution and procedure building: 

Procedures and standards that promote integrity and punish corruption need to be built up within security institutions. Achieving this includes security personnel identifying and prioritising their corruption risks, along with developing context specific plans that account for political challenges. Codes of conduct, procurement and career advancement processes, and legislation for whistleblowers need to be backed up with training, particularly amongst senior leadership, and oversight on their implementation.

Improving oversight:

Accountability for the use of state resources is crucial for combating corruption. The defence and security sectors pose two critical hurdles for accountability: 1) sensitive information; and 2) technical complexity.  There will always be a need for some level of secrecy within the security sector, but tactics such as labeling budgets as ‘state secrets’ demonstrate how this need can be easily abused. A healthy balance between secrecy and disclosure needs to be struck with civilians weighing in on the decision. Those responsible for oversight also need to understand what they are examining, which may call for expert advice. Finally, effective oversight institutions need to be established and maintained such as anti-corruption bodies, which without support get targeted for budget cuts. 

Civil society and citizen voices: 

Speaking out against the security sector can often be regarded as taboo in post-conflict or authoritarian countries, notably due to the personal risks of doing so. When the public does speak out, the tendency leans to criticism without an articulation of the kind of the security sector the public wants. Support to combat corruption needs to help facilitate a dialogue between the public and the security sector to the point that this is the norm. This does not just mean ‘awareness raising’ about corruption. Most citizens are well aware of corruption problems. Rather it means helping the public and civil society to examine how corruption works, and what are ways of calling for accountability. Additionally, the free press needs to be empowered as an important part of civil society oversight.


Placing more emphasis in these prevention programs can do far more for local, regional, and global security in the long run than continuing to rely on train and equip programs.


James Cohen
23 Dec 2014, 05:29:35

Hello Mark and Ronnie,

I’m glad you liked the article and thank you very much for the follow up insights and questions. My apologies for not replying to your question for a few days Mark.

 First, to address working with state institutions, yes you’re right Mark. There is a high chance of failure and it is likely a multi-generational effort to change attitudes and systems, save for taking advantage of some unique windows of opportunity. But there are some steps that can be taken to work on that process. Like other SSR processes, identifying champions of change is important and empowering them with technical knowledge on building integrity and transparency systems can help them.  Also, as part of the long process in changing minds, a first step can be working with security forces on identifying some integrity issues that might be politically suitable to work on, and then building up to more challenging issues further on. Additionally, while a defence budget that was previously completely kept from public scrutiny may not change course immediately to full transparency, you might be able to work with officials to open up the budget incrementally.

On both of your questions about non-state systems for transparency, I would first stress the main approach of SSR, local ownership. Listen to people about how corruption works in their context and what access to information is like before applying a technique such as the ‘I Paid a Bribe’ app.  Systems of corruption, or the sources of corruption will be different in each context.

I would say that training is likely required, which is different from general awareness raising that corruption is a problem. As you say Mark, in other sectors such as local water systems or education, there are examples of successful citizen led campaigns to get money back where it was meant to be distributed. In some of these cases, organisations like Transparency International worked with communities on how to follow the money themselves and coordinate to make direct coherent demands about public spending.  This could be done on security, but there’s more risk involved as the Committee to Protect Journalist reports will detail. That reality needs to be foremost in the mind of civil society that takes on these issues (which it no doubt is) and donors that support them. That shouldn’t mean ‘don’t do anything’, but it does mean be smart about risk assessments and planning. Additionally this is why countries who support safe house systems for human rights defenders, should include anti-corruption campaigners, including investigative journalists. That won’t make everyone safe, but it’s a step in the right direction. Creating safe space for scrutiny is also an important role for donors, such as working with reformists parliamentarians and civil society in Ukraine right now when there is a large, but not complete, political will to tackle corruption.

A few actual examples of citizen campaigns for security transparency include the ‘I Paid a Bribe’ app I mentioned, as well as the Altus ‘Police Week’ campaign of station visits, or Transparency International Russia’s ‘Badge Checking Day’ for police (latter two cited in Transparency International’s ‘Arresting Corruption in the Police’ report on pages 19 and 20

Public reports also help shock the system into change. When Transparency International released its first index on governance of national defence systems, some countries lashed out, but some were dismayed that their militaries faired so poorly. This resulted in some asking for help on how to reform. Again, the security of any local transparency advocacy partners had to be taken into account when developing and rolling out this index. The East African Bribery Index is also an annual sore spot for security services to think about how they can do better. So from this my statement about ‘awareness raising’ in the blog should be tempered. Focused campaigns can articulate a particular problem to coordinate demands for tangible change, as opposed to ‘corruption is bad’. 

I hoped my response was useful. It certainly was interesting for me to think through such excellent feedback. I would be happy to hear if you have follow up thoughts and even disagree. Also, more examples on the context of corruption or anti-corruption campaigns are always welcome, so thank you Ronnie for elaborating on Somaliland. 

Best regards and happy holidays,


Ronnie Bradford
20 Dec 2014, 12:41:18


Thank you for this article. It is most interesting. I would like to offer an insight re Somaliland and also ask a question.

You say that Bernard Harborne's work "uncovered significant corruption and threats to the sustainability of security sector financing". On Somaliland, he reports that Army/militias have received a high share of government funding, "30-50% of the the regular budget", which he notes is a "high price to for peace", though also saying that it has largely worked. In 2010, the Somaliland government budget was estimated at $47M of which the Army received $12.7M, with a similar amount being spent on other aspects of security. In 2014, the government's budget was four and half times larger at $212M, while the Army's budget had doubled to $23.6M. Thus the proportion of formal government spending going to the Army has fallen by 50%, though it is still considerably higher than, for example, health or education, both in dire need of improvement. The Army is still able to draw on "emergency funds", which are not part of the regular budget, though these are now controlled by the President and not the Chief of Staff as formerly. As around 94% of the regular budget is consumed by personnel costs (e.g. pay and rations), additional funding required for almost any military activity. So while military funding in Somaliland is excessive, with inadequate civil oversight and poor governance, there has been a gradual trend in the right direction. The almost glacial rate of improvement is linked to the high degree of local ownership, there being little external involvement. Those who benefit from current arrangements are reluctant to change them. However, in Bernard Harborne's words, this has largely "worked". 

So I echo Mark's question as to whether there are methods of improving transparency and accountability without relying on the goodwill or change of those in the military most involved? Clearly a stakeholder analysis should identify other influential parties who could benefit from reduced corruption in the security sector. Anti-corruption initiatives can also draw on local cultural,  moral or religious strengths. 

Mark Brown
12 Dec 2014, 17:15:28

Hi James, many thanks for this piece. There's a lot in there but I have two quick observations. 

First, you rightly identify how the 'secure' nature of many security sector institutions and processes allows them to be shielded from effective oversight and scrutiny. There are ways around this, possibly, but the power and influence of vested interests is likely to make sure common methods (budgetary oversight mechanisms, etc) are of limited effectiveness. These players are familiar with such methods and simply have too much experience at ensuring they don't work or can't be worked.

So my second point is part observation, part question. My observation is that citizen oversight and participation methods, for example, have been shown to be highly effective at reducing corruption and improving government services such as water, health and education. Where they have achieved this effectiveness it has often been by (a) shining a light in unexpected ways, or by unexpected means upon state actors charged with delivering these services; or (b) by finding ways to deliver money to where it should be by going 'around the outside', thus avoiding the compromised and controlled transfer mechanisms from which money is typically lost. 

My question then, is do you have any thoughts on approaches that might be applied in the SSR context where the focus is not simply perceptual or state-based? That is, where we aren't focused on training, awareness raising, motivating, attitude changing and so on. Or reliant on corrupt players themselves, in the sense of their support for establishment of Ombudsmen, Anti-corruption offices, Financial Investigation Units and the like. These are all input and process goals. They are also all long term (perhaps generational). All the evidence I am familiar with indicates that traditional anti-corruption measures have delivered almost no improvement in the last 20 years or so. So are there novel ways of increasing visibility or transparency or other goals that are strategic techniques, not reliant on perception or attitude change or the goodwill of corrupt players themselves?