July 5, 2017
The scourge of global corruption has been well documented, but less is known about how rampant graft affects international security. Democratic capacity-building efforts, an important tool in fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been hobbled by corruption for over a decade. States with violent extremist groups are often made even more unstable when the perception of corruption leads to public unrest and protests.

Through an investigation of this link between corruption and international security, it was found that online good governance initiatives in the West have also been implemented in fragile states and in the developing world. However, it may be too soon to determine whether government transparency technology can score decisive victories against corruption.

Global Corruption: Digging into a Dangerous Mega-Trend

The National Intelligence Council’s latest Global Trends strategic assessment underscored how emerging economies face pressure to quell corruption. “High-profile protests in places like Brazil and Turkey--countries where middle classes have expanded the past decade--indicate that more prosperous citizens are expecting better, less corrupt governments and society.”

The Atlantic Council’s Global Risks 2035 report recommended that fighting corruption should become a top priority for US policymakers.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016 had dire warnings about the spread of global corruption: “The lower-ranked countries in our index are plagued by untrustworthy and badly functioning public institutions like the police and judiciary. Even where anti-corruption laws are on the books, in practice they’re often skirted or ignored.”

The International Monetary Fund is requiring Ukraine to crack down on corruption before it releases a $17.5 billion loan to Kiev. This year a leader of Ukraine’s tax and revenue department was arrested and charged with embezzling $75 million. The country’s courts have also been the target of graft probes. Ukrainian judges reportedly splurge on luxury goods such as sportscars and designer watches, despite their annual salaries of only $10,000-$13,000.

Anti-corruption protesters in Russia have taken to the streets twice this year with at least 1,400 arrested this month. This includes Alexei Navalny, the leader of the good governance nonprofit Anti-Corruption Foundation, who was found guilty of inciting dissent.

How Does Corruption Affect International Security?

Corruption is the silent killer that can sneak up on fragile governments and lead to civil unrest that challenges a government’s hold on power. Perceptions of runaway public corruption can provide the catalyst that ignites insurgencies, rebellions, terrorism, civil wars, and wars of unification.

The Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 was frustrated with police taking his products without paying. When he complained to the chief of police, he was later beaten in public by an officer--a humiliation that led to his self-immolation. This spontaneous event, caused by government corruption and combined with citizens frustrated by high unemployment and inflation, sent shock waves through the Arab world.

The unrest led to Syria where citizens first protested Assad’s brutal totalitarian regime in 2011. Demonstrators called for political freedom and government reforms. Previously that year, Freedom House warned, “Corruption in Syria is widespread, and bribery is often necessary to navigate the bureaucracy. Those arrested on corruption charges rarely face serious punishment.”

Corruption also plays a large role in insurgencies. Insurgents wish to undermine the government they are fighting and sew doubt in the eyes of the local population. Counter-insurgency specialists such as John Nagl, Brian Burton, and Seth Jones have written about the lack of trust that the people of Afghanistan have in their political leaders. “The Afghan police are particularly noted for their pattern of abusiveness to the local population, including beatings, robbery, and rape. Former President Hamid Karzai’s administration was widely regarded as incapable of efficient and effective governance or service provision beyond Kabul.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government watchdog, considers the corruption level in the country to be one of the highest risks to the counter-insurgency fight. “Corruption has eroded state legitimacy, weakening the government’s ability to enlist popular support against the insurgency, discouraging foreign investment and economic growth, as well as seriously diminishing Afghan military capability.”

In Iraq, the rise of ISIS has sometimes been attributed to public perceptions of corruption in the Iraqi government. Suadad al-Salhy covers Iraqi graft for the Middle East Eye. Al-Salhy has said that a corrupt Iraqi government lost legitimacy in the eyes of some Sunnis and this left people looking to extremist groups for an alternative. Al-Salhy also believes that corruption in the military led to its initial poor performance against ISIS.

“Everything is related to the corruption,” Al-Salhy told the Voice of America. “The real problem in this country is the corruption which provides a cover or an umbrella for the Islamic State and other insurgencies.”

Corruption can also hinder the creation of a well-trained, professional, merit-based military with modern weapon systems. This has reportedly been a problem in Ukraine where whistleblowers have complained about graft in military contracts. Some Ukrainian defense officials have sold government property for their own gain and received kickbacks on contracts and accepted bribes to get candidates into military academies.

How Can Technology Fight Corruption?

If conventional democratic governance and capacity building struggles or fails, with unfree and unfair elections or dirty judicial branches and lack of legislative oversight, then perhaps technological innovations can help fight corruption.

In the United States and the West, web-based portals and transparency tools have shined light on government salaries, contracting, spending, budgets, and ethics disclosures. These online initiatives are known as Government 2.0. This trend also includes government efforts to make data sets and APIs available to software developers who are encouraged to make applications that improve governance.

Usually these projects are implemented by government workers, but sometimes they come from technology startups such as USAFacts and OpenGov. Established corporations have also contributed. IBM, for example, is developing blockchain technology to cut red tape and “transform regulatory compliance.”

But what about the developing world and fragile states? Can Government 2.0 projects help the situation in Afghanistan in Iraq?

University researchers have developed IT-solutions for government procurement transparency in Iraq. In Afghanistan, navigating government can sometimes require bags of cash to grease the wheels. A mobile payment app called M-Paisa is meant to remove corrupt middle-men who skim currency from government funds in Afghanistan.

Similar problems in India led to the development of an online graft-reporting portal called IpaidaBribe.com. The World Bank Integrity Mobile App allows users to report waste, fraud, and abuse happening in World Bank development projects. West Africa’s Trade Route Incident Mapping System, enables users to document “bribes and harassments” that aggravate truck drivers in Nigeria and Mali. Kosovo has automated its tax collection online leading to improvements in the ease of doing business in the Balkans.

The level of connectivity, the amount of broadband Internet penetration, and adequate mobile phone service will affect the future of corruption-fighting done by technology. Counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been stymied by corruption for so long that measurable progress in good governance requires cultural changes that a mobile app or sunshine portal cannot solve alone. But transparency advocates should take heart by the amount of growth in Government 2.0 initiatives that has already achieved some relief from corruption in the developing world.

Brent M. Eastwood, PhD is the Founder and CEO of GovBrain Inc that predicts world events using machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and data science. He is a former military officer and award-winning economic forecaster. Brent has founded and led companies in sectors such as biometrics and immersive video. He is also a Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

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