This blog post by Associate Professor Åse Gilje Østensen of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, and Sheelagh Brady, Senior Analyst at SAR Consultancy, was first published on the Global Anti-Corruption Blog on December 13.

In developing countries faced with security challenges—such as armed conflict, insurgencies, or widespread violence—foreign donors often offer capacity-building programs to strengthen local security institutions. However, many of these capacity-building programs do not consider corruption or incorporate anticorruption measures within their design. And when donors do consider corruption in military capacity-building programs, they typically focus narrowly, and short-sightedly, on safeguarding program funding, with little apparent concern beyond that. The view seems to be that one can build military or police capacity first, and then (perhaps) deal with corruption later, or even leave anticorruption efforts entirely to organizations and agencies dedicated to this purpose.

This approach is likely mistaken. As documented in a recent case study from the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Capacity Building for the Nigerian Navy: Eyes Wide Shut on Corruption?, capacity-building efforts in weak states with pervasive corruption can stimulate corrupt or even criminal activity, which may result in more of the insecurity that these efforts are supposed to reduce. As the U4 report notes, “capacity building can strengthen the abilities of corrupt actors to devise corrupt schemes, as the skills and equipment provided may be used to ‘professionalise’ corrupt practices.” Donors and policymakers therefore need to see corruption as a critical concern at the top level of foreign and security policy across countries, and make anticorruption a key component of the design, implementation, and follow-up of military and police training.

In contrast to more ambitious and comprehensive security sector reform programs, capacity building programs seek to achieve modest improvements in capabilities, usually by providing training, mentoring, and/or equipment. Yet while modesty in terms of goals may be useful, donors may be tempted to think that the limited scope of capacity-building interventions implies limited risk. Yet a host of problems can arise when anticorruption measures are not incorporated into capacity building. Most obviously, when adding particular skill sets or strengthening the operational capacity of corrupt security institutions, security personnel may improve their ability to divert resources from their intended purposes. Worse still, building selected capacity without addressing corruption could mean bolstering the segments of the security apparatus involved in facilitating or carrying out criminal activity. It is hard to know just how big of a problem this is, but there are indications that capacity building very often is provided to corrupt security sectors. For example, several studies have found the Nigerian Navy to be heavily involved in facilitating illegal bunkering, oil theft at sea, and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (see here, here, here, and here). At the same time, the Navy is a partner to two capacity building programs sponsored by the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM): the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) and the Africa Partnership Station (APS). Neither of these programs implements measures to prevent corrupt actors in the Navy from using their newfound skills and better technology to fuel insecurity and crime. More generally, according to the Security Assistance Monitor, in 2016 alone the United States provided over $8 billion in arms and training to 50 of the 63 countries that Transparency International (TI) has rated as a having a high or critical risk of corruption in their defense sectors.

How can anticorruption efforts be made part of capacity-building programs? The first step is to recognize that corruption can undermine the results of security assistance programs, and to avoid compartmentalizing “security” and “corruption” as two unrelated issues. After recognizing this fundamental point, one can design and implement sensible anticorruption measures, tailored to the particular circumstances, in particular the informal power distributions and incentive structures that determine who gains from corruption and how. And before implementing capacity building programs in the first place, donors should carefully consider whether those programs will translate into institutional improvements or will instead create “capital” that may be attractive to corrupt actors, subversive forces, or disloyal individuals.