Is Systemic Corruption Driving Violent Extremism?

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Written by Luke Waggoner and Eguiar Lizundia

In recent years, high-profile corruption scandals have unleashed a wave of popular protests against politicians across the world. Public opinion research indicates corruption one of the foremost issues of concern to ordinary citizens, and trust in government institutions has reached an all-time low.

These negative views are often informed by personal experiences with bribery, nepotism and poor service delivery, which become rapidly less tolerable when the illicit enrichment of public officials dominates the news. Perceptions of pervasive corruption among the political class, in turn, makes constituents more vulnerable to the appeal of extremists who argue that the system is irretrievably broken, and only direct action can effect change. In Tunisia, for instance, violent extremist organizations have found a fertile recruitment base among marginalized groups who feel left behind by the country’s embattled elected leaders and remnants of the authoritarian-era security apparatus.

The insidious connection between corruption and violent extremism operates in a feedback loop: as violent extremism rises, governments with questionable democratic credentials opt to maintain the status quo rather than undertake needed democratic and anti-corruption reforms, in the interest of shoring up state-level “stability.”

While this may seem to deliver results in the short-term, in the long run it entrenches patron-client dynamics in the allocation of public resources that stoke popular resentment and enhance the appeal of direct action. For example, the governments of both Hungary and Turkey have exploited public anxieties over the influx of refugees and used the threat of terrorism to strip the government of important institutional checks, reflected in the sharp decline of each countries’ rankings in Transparency International’s  Corruption Perception Index.

The trend of consolidating power extends beyond corruption to the limitation of key democratic rights. Political dissent is sometimes conflated with unrelated extremism and used to justify repression and extrajudicial crackdowns on political opposition. In so doing, authoritarian leaders exploit the real threat of terrorism to minimize political competition and undermine pluralism, and ironically enhance the appeal of extremism to disenfranchised segments of the population.

At their core, corruption and violent extremism must be understood as byproducts of bad governance—both on a local and national level. Research conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) indicates that corruption is a key driver of terrorism in locations ranging from Bosnia to Tanzania to Tunisia. In addition, many of the factors traditionally thought to be tied to terrorism such as unemployment, political exclusion, and societal marginalization are related to corruption at some level.

In order to more comprehensively address both corruption and violent extremism, it is crucial that the international community redouble its efforts to strengthen democratic governance by increasing transparency and accountability; improving access to government officials and information; and bolstering service delivery.

In the development sector, this means employing approaches that address the nexus between corruption and extremism, rather than treat these phenomena in silos. In Ambon, Indonesia—an island that experienced years of sectarian conflict and remains vulnerable to extremism— IRI convened civil society representatives and government officials to implement interventions to combat corruption.  By encouraging citizens to engage around a shared agenda that addresses commonly identified vulnerabilities to corruption, development partners can facilitate gradual governance reforms through sustained dialogue and collaboration.

As world leaders seek to fight corruption and counter violent extremism through mechanisms like the G20, it is essential that policies be developed holistically to undermine the dangerous feedback loop perpetuated by these challenges. Past experience has shown that piecemeal approaches are insufficient at rooting out the underlying causes of both corruption and violent extremism. By joining up anticorruption efforts with national counterterrorism strategies, leaders can undermine the recruitment by extremist organizations far more effectively. The upcoming G20 gives world leaders an important platform from which to address this critical linkage and forge a more thoughtful, thorough approach to both problems.

About the authors: Luke Waggoner and Eguiar Lizundia are Senior Governance Specialists at the International Republican Institute.