By Maria Gili
What do a cafeteria, a cleaning service company, a pasta factory, a slaughterhouse, and a resort in Egypt have in common? They are all quite possibly owned by the country’s military. And although everybody knows this, the detail of the defence budget is the biggest secret in town: literally. Ninety-nine per cent of the defence budget in Egypt is not disclosed. Whereas many defence establishments shield themselves from public scrutiny under the guise of national security, secrecy in this case serves to cover the huge profits made by the Egyptian military.
Citizens around the world – and specifically in the Middle East and North Africa – are too often kept in the dark with regard to the defence and security sector. They have no access to their country’s defence budget, despite it being funded with their taxes. Eighteen of the 19 countries assessed in the region by Transparency International UK’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index don’t even have a legislative committee to scrutinise the defence budget, or, if it does exist, it receives only partial information and has few powers.
Until a few weeks ago, many wouldn’t have been able to find Mali on a map, but the country has recently spiralled into a conflict that is threatening to press into neighbouring Algeria and resulted in the deaths of dozens of foreigners after they were taken hostage by jihadists in a gas plant. Algeria is worried about a further spill-over of the conflict across its borders. But also within Algeria’s borders there is room for concern, as the Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index suggests: Algeria was found to have a lack of anti-corruption controls in the field of military operations, which is a concern not only from the perspective of regional stability, but also from the risk of corruption. And this is not the only corruption risk the country faces: there are few anti-corruption controls over procurement in defence. If David Cameron’s recent visit to the country results in increased purchases from British firms, will there be sufficient oversight to curtail impropriety?
These are only some of the risks areas assessed in the new Index. The study, launched on 29 January, analyses what 82 countries do to reduce corruption risks in their defence sector. They are scored in bands from very low risk (A) to critical risk (F) according to detailed assessment across 77 indicators that cover five prominent risk areas in the sector: politics, finance, personnel, operations, and procurement.
In a new report focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, the study found that all 19 countries included in this study are placed in Bands D, E and F, hence at high risk of corruption in the sector. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are found to have a critical level of defence corruption risk, meaning that there is hardly any accountability in the defence and security establishments of these states. The best-scoring countries in the region are Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.
So what do the countries in this region have in common, according to the Index? Apart from the secrecy already mentioned, patronage and a lack of public involvement in defence decisions are widespread shortcomings.
The Index finds that the selection for sensitive posts or intelligence positions is often reported to be related with patronage networks. There is a risk that individuals self-interestedly misuse public office to advantage friends or people they know, potentially when it comes to hiding or protecting their fortunes. This may be particularly true of resource-rich countries in the region – Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Syria, Libya, and Yemen – which perform more poorly than resource-poor ones – Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.
Regarding the inability of citizens to get involved in defence decisions, and indeed their inability to discuss defence issues openly, there appears to be awareness among the public of the problem. Many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa share a recent past of revolution and public outcry against corruption and demands for accountable governments that protect and serve their citizens, rather than themselves. Although it is true that all conflict and transition countries assessed in the region populate the lowest bands of the Index, it is also true that the Arab Spring has opened the door to a new beginning – the opportunity to tear corruption out by the roots.
Cries for reform must be matched by governments shaping up. Countries rebuilding their institutions need to incorporate the views and concerns of the people in the streets, especially when it comes to the defence sector, which has been tarnished by a history of secrecy and scandals that cost troops’ and citizens’ lives and money. Cleaning up and making the defence sector more open is not just the responsibility of officers and officials: now that citizens in the region have spoken out for change, they need to have the tools to help bring it about. The Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index is precisely that: an instrument to help the Arab Spring to blossom into the Arab Summer while momentum for change is rife.
Maria Gili is the communications officer for the Transparency International Defence and Security Programme