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Corruption presents major challenges to development and security, and is often seen to thrive in countries affected by war. But the forms and dynamics of corruption emerging at the local level through war remain poorly understood. Drawing on new evidence from Nepal, research being undertaken at the University of Birmingham is attempting to shed light on this relationship.

War and high levels of corruption are two issues which intuitively overlap. Consulting common measures of government corruption, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), shows that there is some empirical basis to this intuition. With a small number of exceptions, the list of countries most affected by corruption in these measures is dominated by those also currently or recently affected by war.

At the level of central government, the reasons why such a relationship might exist are straightforward. War undermines institutions such as the police and judiciary tasked with prevention and investigation, it facilitates the passing of emergency powers limiting government transparency, and it expands the possibilities of illicit cross-border trade.

Current understanding of this relationship is, however, far from complete. Despite the fact that interest in corruption is often driven by concerns about its impacts on the poor and vulnerable, analysis of corruption after war is overwhelmingly focused on central governments. Attention to corruption after war also tends to focus on the short period where western development aid is typically deployed, motived by political and public concerns over waste and abuse.

The question of long-term changes in perceptions of corruption for populations affected by war has therefore remained largely unaddressed – and this is a problem. Whilst not perfectly reflecting the objective reality of experiences, perceptions of corruption are central to the expectations of ordinary people when engaging with local government and other elites. Simply put, believing corruption is commonplace within particular institutions impacts how acceptable it seems. The perception shapes the reality.

So how, then, do corruption perceptions change as a result of war? A pilot study of communities in Nepal affected by the 1996–2006 Maoist 'People’s War' indicates that this is evident in three areas:

Firstly, the war affected the organisations in which corruption is seen to be concentrated. In Nepal, political parties were seen to exploit the near-complete destruction of local government during the war, and to have subsequently monopolised control of local development for illicit gains. This is seen to have become more entrenched as local government has recovered since 2006, and has led the political parties to be seen as amongst the most corrupt public bodies in Nepal.

Secondly, the war directly impacted the public acceptability of corruption. This might appear counterintuitive, but the conflict period saw an involvement of rural peoples in political action in a way that had not been widely evident before, and is seen by many as a period of rural awakening. The capacity of the people to exert influence may still be suppressed by political conditions, but the conflict has left a population decreasingly tolerant of corruption amongst elites.

Finally, the war impacted what corruption is fundamentally seen to be. Specifically, popular understandings of corruption in the areas studied are informed by the idea of a ‘moral’ or ideological deviation amongst the Maoists. This perception is driven by the clash between the expectations of the war to change the material reality of the population, and the situation that emerged when the Maoists entered government in the post-conflict period.

How the population of heavily conflict-affected areas understand corruption has thus been fundamentally affected by the 1996–2006 war. This is despite Nepal entering a new period of peace and relative political stability.

The next step is to understand more about how this feeds back into the actions of corruption the population encounters and engages in, and thus developing a more holistic picture of this vital aspect of our understanding of corruption.