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Towards a Corruption-Sensitive Conflict Analysis

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Michelle Garred

In this blog post, Michelle Garred, conflict sensitivity practitioner for 15 years, challenges herself to rethink her hesitancy to approaching corruption as a driver of conflict, and looks back on a conflict analysis workshop in Kenya with a new lens. She suggests that in a conflict analysis, if corruption is raised by local people, raised frequently, and raised as a key driver of conflict rather than just a symptom, then it is time to dig deeper to understand what corruption means in that context, and how it relates to the dynamics of conflict.

As a conflict sensitivity practitioner for 15 years, I’ve become pretty good at making the case for aid and peace workers to consider the impact of all their actions on inter-group violent conflict. It’s something that I continue to believe in and advocate. When I encounter anti-corruption work, I appreciate its value and, truth be told, I also think: “I hope that project is not unintentionally feeding into conflict!” Corinna Kreidler has insightfully explored this possibility, and laid out a vision for what conflict-sensitive anti-corruption programming looks like. I really hope that anti-corruption practitioners are following her advice.

At the same time, the more I think about corruption, the more I begin to wonder: should this awareness not be a two-way street? Should my conflict analysis work – which lies at the heart of conflict sensitivity – be more sensitive itself to the dynamics of corruption? In real life, conflict does not occur in isolation. Conflict comes intertwined with other contextual dynamics like gender, disabilities, state fragility, humanitarian protection and – yes – corruption. With some researchers pointing to corruption as a potential driver of conflict, doesn’t this deserve another look?

It really does. So, this week I began to sift through my memory, and my reports, from time spent in CDA, World Vision International, and independent consultancy. I saw that in participatory conflict analyses, local people often identify corruption as a problematic factor. For example, check out World Vision’s recent ‘Do No Harm’ program-level meta-trends analysis, in which corruption shows up as one of the six most frequently occurring dividers across programming contexts. Or World Vision’s book on ‘Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts’ (MSTC) macro-analysis in which fighting corruption shows up as central to improving governance, one of the four most frequently identified strategic needs for a country’s future.

I was part of many of those analyses, in one way or another. I facilitated them, trained other people to facilitate them, and played a role in developing the organization’s analytical toolkit. Yet when corruption came up in the course of analysis, I very rarely probed to find out more about what it meant. For example in the Kenya 2012 MSTC – which I facilitated – Kenyan participants identified corruption as both an important driver of conflict, and as a factor likely to increase in the case of future election-related unrest. Yet I don’t recall asking further questions to probe more deeply on how the corruption related to conflict dynamics. Why not?

I probably did not probe because ‘corruption’ sounds vague. This word often pops up in conflict analysis as a mysterious black box, and nobody is entirely clear on what’s inside, whether it be bribery, extortion, political interference, sexual favors, favoritism, or other concerns. Probably because corruption was just one of the many problematic factors mentioned, as both conflict drivers and conflict symptoms, and there is never enough time to explore every factor deeply. Probably because I know that the interpretation of corruption is often contested – with one culture’s idea of a corruption problem being another culture’s idea of everyday social norms.

Cut now to a different East Africa macro-analysis, carried out recently with a CDA partner. In working through a practice session on conflict systems analysis, the Western headquarters-based staff saw a close relationship between corruption and violent conflict. They worked through a process of visually mapping both the key driving factors of corruption-related conflict and also the factors for peace. Their effort involved quite a bit of insight and rigor.

Even so, when this group stood back to look at their finished systems map, they quickly realized that all of the conflict factors they had identified were things that originated within the context being analyzed, and all of the peace factors they had identified were things that originated outside the context through efforts of the international community. They recognized that their analysis reflected a Westernized bias, in which it becomes tempting to believe that corruption is something problematic that happens in other cultural contexts, while transparent solutions are something that emerges from our own. They were humble in correcting their error, and they are certainly not alone. Sometimes conversations about corruption feel so culturally loaded, and even borderline neo-colonialist, that it just seems far more respectful to leave it alone.

Now, cut back again to the Kenya 2012 MSTC macro-analysis. In this case, it’s more difficult to blame cultural bias for the emergence of the corruption theme, since the 20+ participants were almost exclusively Kenyan. Did I miss anything significant by opting not to probe more deeply into corruption? Probably yes. Concern over corruption has grown in the five years since the analysis. In 2016, Transparency International ranked Kenya 145 out of 176 countries on its corruption perception index – indicating a very strong perception of corruption.

Allegations of graft and electoral manipulation are so central to Kenyan presidential politics that they altered the process of the 2007 and 2017 presidential elections, in a country that is working hard to transcend the risk of electoral violence. In this context, corruption is a strong enough factor to affect the trends that shape the future. Our macro-analysis was not wrong – in fact it was generally considered quite accurate. However, if I as facilitator had pushed for a deeper ‘unpacking’ of the theme of corruption, the analysis could have had more predictive power, which is critically important in helping aid organizations prepare themselves for the future.

So, do I now believe that corruption must be positioned front and center in every conflict analysis? No, I do not. But I do think that I as a conflict analyst must have the skill to detect contexts in which the corruption theme might be a real priority, and the flexibility to adapt my methodology to better understand and unpack corruption. Here are some cues: in a conflict analysis, if corruption is raised by local people rather than outsiders, raised frequently, and raised as a key driver of conflict rather than just a symptom, then it is time to dig deeper. Digging deeper means first clarifying what form(s) corruption takes in that context, as viewed by local people, and then unpacking specifically how it relates to the dynamics of the broader conflict. These are steps toward a more corruption-sensitive form of conflict analysis.

About the author(s)

Michelle Garred joined CDA in 2016 as a Senior Advisor on Conflict Sensitivity and Peacebuilding Effectiveness. Michelle previously worked for World Vision International, where she led and expanded the multi-agency global network for Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts participatory macro-level analysis, and advised organizational leadership on strategy-level application of conflict analysis findings. She also led conflict sensitivity mainstreaming across country offices in the Asia-Pacific Region and the Asia Tsunami Response, as well as supporting civil society peace efforts in the post-war Balkans. While working as an independent researcher and consultant, Michelle spearheaded action research on ‘Do No Harm’ adaptations for the religious and multi-faith organizations, with support from the International Peace Research Association Foundation, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Religious Research Association. She also provided consultancy services for multiple NGOs, and adjunct teaching for the American University Summer Peacebuilding & Development Institute. Michelle has served long term in México, Kosovo, the Philippines, and Singapore, and provided shorter-term technical assistance in dozens of contexts around the world.