By Sean Buchanan
In the last year, anti-corruption movements across the globe have gained momentum as millions of people joined together to speak out against corruption in their governments.
Protests from Latin America, North Africa and Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Central Asia made headlines as citizens marched in Santiago, Prague, Beirut and a host of other cities to voice their frustrations in the streets.
From fraud that occurs at the highest levels of government to petty bribery that blocks access to basic public services like health care and education, citizens are fed up with corrupt leaders and institutions.
This frustration fuels a growing lack of trust in government and further erodes public confidence in political leaders, elected officials and democracy.
If the latest findings from international corruption watchdog Transparency International are anything to go by, a staggering number of countries are showing little to no improvement in tackling corruption.
In its just released Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2019, the global movement with the vision of a world in which government, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption says that corruption is more pervasive in countries where big money can flow freely into electoral campaigns and where governments listen only to the voices of wealthy or well-connected individuals.
The CPI is an annual ranking of 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to experts and businesspeople. It uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.
More than two-thirds of countries score below 50 on the latest CPI, with an average score of just 43. Similar to previous years, the data shows that despite some progress, a majority of countries are still failing to tackle public sector corruption effectively.
The top countries are New Zealand and Denmark, with scores of 87 each, followed by Finland (86), Singapore (85), Sweden (85) and Switzerland (85). The bottom countries are Somalia (9), South Sudan (12) and Syria (13), closely followed by Yemen (15), Venezuela (16), Sudan (16), Equatorial Guinea (16) and Afghanistan (16).
In the last eight years, only 22 countries significantly improved their CPI scores, including Greece, Guyana and Estonia. In the same period, 21 countries significantly decreased their scores, including Canada, Australia and Nicaragua. In the remaining 137 countries, the levels of corruption show little to no change.
This year, the CPI focuses on the relationship between politics, money and corruption, arguing that keeping big money out of politics is essential to ensure that political decision-making serves the public interest and curbs opportunities for corrupt deals, since unregulated flows of big money in politics make public policy vulnerable to undue influence.
“Governments must urgently address the corrupting role of big money in political party financing and the undue influence it exerts on our political systems,” said Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of Transparency International.
She was echoed by the organisation’s Managing Director, Patricia Moreira: “To have any chance of ending corruption and improving peoples’ lives, we must tackle the relationship between politics and big money. All citizens must be represented in decision-making.”
According to the CPI report, countries with stronger enforcement of campaign finance regulations have lower levels of corruption.
Countries where campaign finance regulations are comprehensive and systematically enforced have an average score of 70 on the CPI, whereas countries where such regulations either do not exist or are poorly enforced score an average of just 34 and 35 respectively. Sixty percent of countries that significantly improved their CPI scores since 2012 also strengthened their enforcement of campaign finance regulations.
In addition, when policymakers listen only to wealthy or politically connected individuals and groups, they often do so at the expense of the citizens they serve.
Countries with broader and more open consultation processes score an average of 61 on the CPI. By contrast, where there is little to no consultation, the average score is just 32. A vast majority of countries that have seen a significant decline in their CPI scores since 2012 do not engage the most relevant political, social and business actors in political decision-making.
Countries with lower CPI scores also have a higher concentration of political power among wealthy citizens. Across the board, there is a concerning popular perception that rich people buy elections, both among some of the lowest-scoring countries on the CPI, as well as among certain higher-scoring countries, such as the United States.
With a score of 69, the United States has dropped two points since 208 to earn its lowest score on the CPI in eight years. This comes at a time when Americans’ trust in government is at an historic low of 17 percent,17 according to a Pew Research Center report on public trust in government.
The United States faces a wide range of challenges, from threats to its system of checks and balances and the ever-increasing influence of special interests in government, to the use of anonymous shell companies by criminals, corrupt individuals and even terrorists, to hide illicit activities.
While U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp“ and make government work for more than just Washington insiders and political elites, Transparency International notes that a series of scandals, resignations and allegations of unethical behaviour suggest that the “pay-to-play” culture has only become more entrenched.
President Trump is now, of course, the subject of impeachment proceedings on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress brought by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Elsewhere in the Americas, Canada is said to remain a top performer, with a score of 77 out of 100, although the country has dropped four points since last year and seven points since 2012. At the bottom of the index, Venezuela scores 16, which is also one of the bottom five scores globally.
In the Asia Pacific region, despite the presence of high performers like New Zealand (87), Singapore (85), Australia (77), Hong Kong (76) and Japan (73), Transparency International says the region has not witnessed substantial progress in anticorruption efforts or results. In addition, low performers like Afghanistan (16), North Korea (17) and Cambodia (20) continue to highlight serious challenges in the region.
While often seen as an engine of the global economy, in terms of political integrity and governance, the region performs only marginally better than the global average. Many countries see economic openness as a way forward, however governments across the region – from China to Cambodia to Vietnam – continue to restrict participation in public affairs, silence dissenting voices and keep decision-making out of public scrutiny.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia is the second-lowest performing region on the CPI, with an average score of 35. Across the region, countries experience limited separation of powers, abuse of state resources for electoral purposes, opaque political party financing and conflicts of interest.
Only three countries score above the global average: Georgia (56), Belarus (45) and Montenegro (45). At the bottom of the region are Turkmenistan (19), Uzbekistan (25) and Tajikistan (25).
The CPI report notes that Turkey (39) has declined significantly by 10 points since 2012, while Bosnia and Herzegovina (36) declined by six points in the same period. A lack of political will and a decline in implementation of laws and regulations are said to be real challenges.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the CPI records little progress in improving control of corruption. With a score of 71, the United Arab Emirates is the best regional performer, followed by Qatar (62). At the bottom of the region, Syria scores 13, followed by Yemen with a score of 15. Both countries are significant decliners on the CPI, with Yemen dropping eight points since 2012 and Syria dropping 13 points during the same period.
The lowest-scoring region on the CPI, with an average of 32, is Sub-Saharan. With a score of 66, the Seychelles earns the highest mark in the region, followed by Botswana (61), Cabo Verde (58), Rwanda (53) and Mauritius (52). At the bottom of the index are Somalia (9), South Sudan (12), Sudan (16) and Equatorial Guinea (16).
Despite being the best performing region, with an average score of 66 out of 100, Western Europe and the European Union are not immune to corruption. With 87 points, Denmark is the highest-scoring country in the region, followed by Finland (86), Sweden (85) and Switzerland (85). At the bottom of the region are Bulgaria (43), Romania (44) and Hungary (44).
However, Transparency International reports that while the Nordic economies stand out as leaders on the CPI, integrity at home does not always translate into integrity abroad, and multiple scandals in 2019 demonstrated that transnational corruption is often facilitated, enabled and perpetuated by “seemingly clean” Nordic countries.
Meanwhile, despite some high-profile fines and prosecutions, enforcement of foreign bribery laws among OECD countries is said to “shockingly low” and the outsized roles that some companies play in their national economies gives them political support that too often triumphs over real accountability. “Some banks and businesses are not just too big to fail – they’re also too powerful to pay.”
Finally, according to Transparency International, most post-communist EU member states are struggling to address corruption effectively, with several countries, including Hungary, Poland and Romania, having taken steps to undermine judicial independence, which weakens their ability to prosecute cases of high-level corruption.