Guest Post: The Government Defence Integrity Index — Assessing Corruption in Defence

Stephanie Trapnell, Senior Advisor on Defence and Security at Transparency International, and Matthew Steadman, Research Officer at Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme, authored today’s post on the UK Programme’s Government Defence Integrity Index. The Index evaluates corruption risks across defence financing, operations, personnel, political, and procurement for 87 countries using data on 77 defence-related areas. (As the index was produced by TI Defence & Security, a program housed within the TI-UK chapter, the British spelling is followed throughout.)

Corruption in the defence sector poses grave risks for security in both national and international contexts. Transparency International’s flagship report for the Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) shows 86% of global arms exports between 2016-2020 (worth US$1439.6 billion) originated from countries at a moderate to very high risk of corruption in their defence sectors. The top five exporters – the United States (overall score of 55/100), Russia (36/100), France (50/100), Germany (70/100) and China (28/100) – accounted for 76% of the global total. Meanwhile, 49% of global arms imports are arriving in counties facing a high to critical risk of defence corruption.

Although President Biden’s new anticorruption strategy outlines a “whole-of-government approach” to countering corruption, it stresses the importance of addressing corruption specifically in defence and security. Indeed, the strategy is a critical and welcome acknowledgment, by a global power and major provider of security assistance, that corruption plays a considerable role in destabilising democracy. In Strategic Objective 5.5, emphasis is placed on assessment of corruption risk, causes of corruption, and political will for reform. Specifically for the security sector, there is a call for greater transparency in military budgets, whistle-blower protections, and oversight.

Not only does corruption have a devastating impact on both the defence apparatus itself and on wider peace and security, it can undermine otherwise robust democracies, by serving as a type of statecraft for defence officials and military elites. Corruption undermines the efficiency of security forces, damages popular trust in state institutions, and feeds a sense of disillusionment, which threatens the social contract and the rule of law, and can empower non-state and extremist armed groups.

Given the distinct nature of governance in the defence sector, and the evolving understanding of how corruption operates, the question then turns to what can be done to counter or prevent corruption in a traditionally secretive yet critical sector like defence. The answer is not to measure corruption itself, which is inherently covert and difficult to capture, but instead to measure institutional resilience to it. The Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) is the only tool that captures comprehensive information on the quality of institutional controls on corruption in the defence sector.

The GDI recognises that:

  • Corruption within the defence sector limits a country’s ability to defend itself and provide meaningful security to its population.
  • The secrecy that often envelops the defence sector wastes resources and weakens public institutions, enabling diversion of state resources for private gain through defence institutions.
  • Effective state institutions play a pivotal role in preventing the waste of public funds, the abuse of power, and fraud within the defence sector.

Analysis based on the GDI has revealed several concerns regarding corruption and defence institutions. Three of the most pressing: the lack of legislative oversight over defence matters, the inattention of military doctrines to the problem of corruption, and the rising influence of the private sector through lobbying and private military security contractors.

  1. Legislative oversight is under threat in a wide range of countries. In some cases, there is a complete absence of formal powers. But more often, legislators and defence committees are failing to invoke their authority to scrutinise defence policy, budgets, and procurement. In 41 per cent of countries with strong formal rights, legislatures consistently fail to take advantage of their oversight powers or simply do not debate or review defence policy at all. Whether this is due to populist-driven executive overreach, a lack of expertise and staffing support, or compromised information flows between ministries and elected officials, democratic civilian oversight of the defence sector is facing challenges across a variety of contexts.

Even when committees are active in proposing recommendations and amendments, defence institutions are often able to simply ignore them. In 44 per cent of the countries with active committees, ministries regularly fail to incorporate their findings into practice, or only make minor amendments. Amongst these lower scorers are countries as varied as South Africa, Ukraine, Singapore, Brazil, and Niger.

None of the top 25 arms exporters have robust legislative scrutiny of arms exports, with only three countries having more than limited debate, but still with significant risk of undue influence: South Korea, United Kingdom, and United States. Moreover, six of the 25 have not even ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, which is one of cornerstones of the global arms control regime, as the first international legally binding instrument designed to promote responsibility in conventional arms transfers.

  • Reference to corruption is largely absent from military doctrines. Doctrine is the cornerstone of a country’s defence strategy, setting key military priorities and outlining how armed forces achieve their objectives, providing a common frame of reference across the military. The inclusion of anti-corruption considerations in the doctrine can be crucial to laying the foundations for the development of strong corruption controls as part of military operations, as the doctrine helps to establish common standard operating procedures for fulfilling objectives. Ninety-seven per cent of countries fall in the bottom quarter for this, with 70 per cent scoring 0. For these countries, corruption is not officially considered a strategic issue for operations, and there are no overarching guidelines on how to mitigate the associated risks. This comprises 14 of 22 NATO members, including Canada, Germany, Denmark, and France, and 13 of 16 EU member states, with only Estonia, the Netherlands and Italy scoring higher than 0.

As such, military forward planning rarely addresses corruption risks in operations. Over 80 per cent of countries score in the bottom quarter in this regard, with 70 per cent scoring 0. NATO countries, along with EU member states, average under 25 points for this area. This raises significant concerns as to foreign missions’ resilience to corruption.

The collapse of the Afghan defence and security forces in 2021 is a prime example of how missions, in this case an international military intervention, can fuel corruption and critically undermine mission objectives. The US-led invasion and subsequent state-building project saw billions of dollars’ worth of military funding channelled to warlords who used violence, patronage and bribery to hollow out the national security forces and re-purpose them for their own ends. This endemic corruption and poor governance in turn helped perpetuate insecurity, undermine public support for the government and provide new recruits to the Taliban, leading to their return to power and the drawdown of the international presence in Afghanistan.

  • The defence sector has long been dominated by powerful companies that are tightly connected to political administrations. Corporate actors are allowed to exert significant influence over defence policy and spending decisions, as well as foreign policy writ large. No other area illustrates this better than defence industry lobbying. According to GDI data, 77 per cent of countries lack any provisions to regulate lobbying of defence institutions. Regardless of income levels, geographic location, or level of development, virtually every state assessed exercised little control over lobbying, with only Canada and South Korea scoring highly in terms of the regulatory framework and its implementation in practice. The United States – the country with the largest arms industry in the world, home to 43 of the top 100 defence companies –does not require public officials to disclose meetings with lobbyists or to confirm that lobbyists are listed in the public register before meeting. In the United Kingdom, lobbying legislation is extremely narrow and excludes in-house lobbyists from registration requirements, despite these actors accounting for up to 85 per cent of lobbying activity. Overall, eight of the top 15 military spenders globally completely fail to regulate lobbying of defence institutions, while regulations in Israel, France, Australia, and the United Kingdom are extremely weak and poorly implemented.

A further manifestation of the growing role of corporations in the sector is the rapidly expanding role of private military and security contractors (PMSCs). Since 2000, the number of PMSCs across the globe has more than doubled, partly due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where private contractors were heavily relied upon and at times exceeded the number of American soldiers on the ground. The United States is the largest customer for PMSC services in the world, spending over US$160 billion between 2007 and 2012, followed by the United Kingdom, China, and South Africa who together account for 70 per cent of the entire industry. GDI data reveals that 59 per cent of countries assessed either have no legislation applicable to PMSCs, or the frameworks they have are incomplete and do not adequately cover the full extent of PMSC activities. States without any regulation on the use of PMSCs include Venezuela, South Sudan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Mexico, where PMSCs have been actively involved in combat operations.

The concerns outlined above constitute critical corruption vulnerabilities in defence sectors around the world. A renewed focus on defence anticorruption efforts in President Biden’s new strategy is welcome, but its reform strategies must be built upon solid evidence of how corruption manifests both in the sector itself, as well as within global flows of arms, global movements of military assets, and the transnational activities of private firms.

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