The US government’s drive to cut foreign aid in favor of increased military spending is shortsighted, even if one focuses only on national security objectives. This is especially true for aid devoted to supporting anticorruption efforts, which can act as a powerful tool for improving regional stability without direct, overbearing involvement in a region. The past decade has shown how difficult on-the-ground involvement can be, and anticorruption-focused aid can help secure dangerous regions and allow the US to withdraw some of it physical presence abroad.
One striking example of the danger that corruption poses to security and stability can be seen in the context of land use and land rights. When corrupt officials deprive people of their land, destroying both their livelihoods and often their local communities in one move, they may push those affected into a situation where violence may seem like the only option. For example, recent land seizures in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq—with Kurdish members of the community either relying on tribal connections or direct bribery to convince local judges to push through illegal land transfers—have caused an outcry among the primarily Christian and Yazidi victims and partially contributed to the formation of religious minority militia units that now threaten to create more violence if they cannot return to their seized homelands. Similar pairings of violence following land seizures were also found in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. And in Afghanistan, corrupt land seizures have been a consistent issue throughout the past decade. This danger remains a concern not just for those affected, but for the international community, as violent movements can lead to destabilization.
While it is unlikely that State Department aid will be effective for all instances of combating these sorts of corruption, targeted aid efforts could be very powerful in certain regions. Providing aid for anticorruption initiatives, and tying other forms of aid to progress in reducing corruption, could be effective non-military methods for ensuring stability in strategically important areas, such as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The future of US-Kurdish relations may be uncertain following the recent referendum for independence, but the same corruption that is pushing minorities off their ancestral lands still exists, and unless the US finds effective ways to address this problem, it may face further secretarian violence in the region, which may require more direct involvement.
This is just one avenue where the Trump administration can pursue what is ultimately a more hands-off approach while shoring up US security concerns. Other forms of corruption, for example rampant money laundering and government graft, can delegitimize a state and allow insurgents groups to promulgate their messages more effectively. This can be seen in Nigeria, where Boko Haram feeds off of the corrupt and ineffective image of Nigeria’s government. As Boko Haram’s attacks continue, and the Trump administration alienates allies on which the previous administration relied in order to combat the danger without direct involvement, Tillerson’s State Department will need to find alternative tools to ensure further instability does not spill over and decrease US security. Once again, targeted and conditioned foreign aid could be used as a tool in this situation, not only supplying much need assistance to at-risk populations, but also working to correct the same corruption issues that imperil US interests.
The observation that there’s a connection between corruption and insecurity and corruption is far from novel. Yet there seems to be little effort to tackle corruption as a security concern, at least within the US, and the Trump administration’s dismissive attitude toward foreign aid seems ill-suited to the administration’s stated international security goals.