Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

In late January, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Dominik Zaum, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Reading, to discuss his work on corruption and post-conflict peacebuilding. Professor Zaum’s fellowship work on Corruption and Stabilisation in Afghanistan in 2011, funded by the ESRC, was designated as falling under the “Conflict” theme of PaCCS’ mandate.  

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.  

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. Can you perhaps start by telling our readers a little bit about how you became interested in corruption and peacebuilding? 

Prof. Dominik Zaum: I started working on peace- and statebuilding during my doctoral work at Oxford, where I focused on the statebuilding policies of international transitional administrations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.  I kept working in this area after completing my degree, including through a research network on corruption and peacebuilding, that I organised together with Christine Cheng, who is now at at King’s College London. The network culminated in a book that we co-edited, on corruption and post-conflict peacebuilding processes. That book examined everything from the subject of aid and corruption, through to anti-corruption measures in the context of post-conflict reconstruction.  

My own work built on this through a project on the political economy of state-building, examining the impact of statebuilding interventions on local political and economic dynamics. One of the key takeaway from that project was the continuity of political and economic structures from war into peace time, and their consolidation as a consequence of international interventions; and the extent to which there is no “golden thread” of stability and development where different economic and political objectives mutually support and build on each other. Instead, these interventions almost always involve difficult political and normative trade-offs. Corruption is a good example of this, as maintaining political settlements in the aftermath of conflict in practice might require accepting levels and types of corruption that would otherwise be deemed intolerable.  

What was driving this research agenda?  

For me, the key drivers of this research agenda were two-fold. Firstly, they arose from my own experiences working in peace- and statebuilding missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and my subsequent fieldwork in countries. Secondly, the importance of understanding the complex implications of corruption was a perpetual theme in discussions with both other researchers and practitioners working in conflict-affected environments. Almost any discussion of the political economy of state- and peacebuilding, or of conflict, eventually touched on corruption, and on its complex impacts on stability both in the short and medium term, on state legitimacy, and on economic development. It was a research agenda that was therefore driven as much by the questions and interests of academics as it was by the questions and challenges faced by practitioners in the field, and in consequence the research itself involved a constant dialogue between both sides.  

How did you end up working on the ESRC fellowship project 

One of the members of the wider research network on corruption and peacebuilding that we had organised, and whom I knew from working for the UN Mission in Kosovo in the past, was at the time a conflict advisor in the Lessons Team in the UK Stabilisation Unit. We had discussed the importance of strengthening exchange between research and practice, and when the ESRC advertised a Public Sector Placement Fellowship, we used the opportunity to submit a proposal for a project generating evidence and guidance on corruption and statebuilding in Afghanistan.  The  Stabilisation Unit was providing support for the UK’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan at the time, and had within it a Lessons Team that was identifying lessons and best practice to support the civilians aspects of the UK’s deployments in fragile contexts. The fellowship had to be co-funded by the Stabilisation Unit, so the objectives of the projects had to closely align with its needs.  

What did the fellowship entail?  

The fellowship was as much a knowledge exchange as it was a research fellowship. The focus was on a wider practice of knowledge exchange between policymakers and researchers – with learning happening in both directions. As part of the Lessons Team, the fellowship allowed me to draw on the experiences of civilians deployed across the world – with a particular focus on the experiences of those in Afghanistan, which was a significant share of the Unit’s work at the time.  

I also had the opportunity to participate in a number of small projects including synthesizing research evidence around police reform and work on UN mission transitions, as well as participating on a bigger internal follow-up project on transitions in Afghanistan, and of course the project on corruption in Afghanistan. 

Because of the security situation, these projects focused on evidence synthesis rather than fieldwork. A lot of the work included interviews with UK staff coming back from Afghanistan who had been deployed through the Stabilisation Unit.  

What were some of the main outcomes of this research?  

The main outcome of the fellowship was a Stabilisation Issue Note on understanding addressing corruption in Afghanistan, which at the time was published by the Stabilisation Unit. I was particularly pleased that the SU decided to publish the paper at the time as some of its arguments – in particular that some forms of corruption might have to be tolerated in the short and medium term to maintain stability and minimize violence – did not align with government policy.   Findings from my work fed into the revision of the stabilisation doctrine, and into the UK approach to stabilisation policy paper which the Stabilisation Unit published about two years ago. 

As I became a Senior Research Fellow at DFID shortly after the start of my ESRC fellowship, my work also fed into the thinking around DFID’s main policy framework for building stability in fragile states.  

Was there anything you learned throughout the course of your fellowship that surprised you? 

I learned a lot about how policy makers used evidence and research, what they needed for their own work from research, but also how challenging it can be to translate research into practical outcomes. I was also surprised – very positively – how seriously many of them engaged with research, not just instrumentally but with genuine curiosity.  

One key take away for me was that as researchers we need to be willing to ask research questions differently in order to answer policymakers’ questions, and that we need to engage early with those who might use our research in their work to better understand what questions to ask and how for the work to be useful to them. That has very much shaped the way I have approached research since, and how I support the research of others. If we want our research to be impactful, then this is not something we can just tag on at the end of a project – it goes back to how we ask questions.  

I also learned that we, as researchers, need to be very careful not to oversell our findings, or to portray a certainty about findings that is unwarranted.  

What have you worked on since the end of your fellowship? 

For a few years afterwards, I continued to work as a Senior Research Fellow on Conflict and Fragility with DFID, focussing among other things on its policies to support fragile states.  

There was a strong narrative at the time, influenced by Acemoglu and Robinson’s Book, Why Nations Fail, which put forward the idea that there are key building blocks which come together to create an open, stable, and prosperous society. This linked into a broader narrative, favoured at the time, which focused on “the golden thread of development”. However, as I and others have argued, peace- and statebuilding involves difficult trade-offs not least with regard to addressing corruption. How we decide on these trade-offs is one of the issues that I think requires a lot more work in the future.  

I am currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, and while I am doing this as a job share – which is a fantastic opportunity – I am not always finding as much time for my own research as I would like. One project looks at whether and how UN Peace Operations treat government violence differently from rebel violence. We’re using a unique dataset of responses to violence in the Congo by the UN over a twenty-year period to determine how and why the nature of responses to violence have changed. We are also just starting work on a small project for the African Development bank, exploring the importance of supporting core state functions for war to peace transitions.  

Prof Zaum is the University of Reading’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation; and Professor of Governance, Conflict and Security. He has been appointed to the Science Advisory Group for the UK Department for International Development (DFID). His research interests focus on peacebuilding, corruption, and political stability. You can learn more about his work here. 

Photo credit: Adam “Dser” – Afghani coins, 2005.