Corruption is a leading indicator for political instability, and 64 countries where fraud and bribery are widespread risk falling into violent upheaval, a global think tank said in a new report.
While anti-corruption researchers long have noted the corrosive power of corruption, its political impact has never before been measured globally.
By examining the linkage between corruption measures and peaceful societies, the research by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in Sydney finds strong statistical evidence that high and rising levels of corruption can undermine security, and that only small increases can cause civil unrest.
"The most striking aspect of this relationship is that there is a tipping point," Aubrey Fox, U.S. executive director for the Australia-based group, said in an interview. "This is enormously important for countries, because if you can, through incremental efforts, knock corruption below that tipping point and control it, you can avert the most difficult consequences."
The findings come as world leaders consider including targets for battling corruption as part of the new U.N. development goals for adoption in September.
The IEP examined trends in peace and corruption over the past 15 years by looking at Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the World Bank's Control of Corruption measure, and its own Global Peace Index. It found that when a country's CPI score is less than 40 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), it has reached a threshold for collapse of government institutions and a rise in internal violence.
From this tipping point, small increases in corruption can trigger large declines in peace, as measured by the Global Peace Index. High levels of corruption in the police and judiciary are critical factors for undermining social cohesion, IEP said.
Over the last seven years, IEP said the indices show the world has become slightly less peaceful and that corruption has increased, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa.
Countries at the tipping point, it said, include Greece, where political corruption has led to a debt crisis and social unrest; Liberia, which was recovering from civil war when the Ebola epidemic hit last year; and Iran.
However, gains in building a peaceful society do not show any statistical linkage to lower levels of corruption, indicating how persistent and challenging is the job of tackling fraud, bribery and abuse of power, IEP said.