WASHINGTON - An anti-corruption watchdog is highlighting a link between inequality and government corruption with the release of its annual global index, saying people are increasingly looking to populist leaders who promise to tackle corruption, but are likely to make the situation worse.
“In countries with populist or autocratic leaders, we often see democracies in decline and a disturbing pattern of attempts to crack down on civil society, limit press freedom, and weaken the independence of the judiciary,” said Jose Ugaz, chair of Transparency International, as the group released its report Wednesday. “Instead of tackling crony capitalism, those leaders usually install even worse forms of corrupt systems.”
The report says countries need “deep-rooted systemic reforms” to address growing imbalances of power and wealth. It recommends those changes include public disclosure of who owns companies and imposing sanctions against those who help move corrupt money across borders.
“In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity,” Ugaz said.
Index based on surveys
The Corruption Perceptions Index is based on surveys and reports of how business leaders and country experts perceive corruption in the public sector. It rates countries on a scale of 0-100, with 0 being a country that is highly corrupt and 100 being very clean.
In 2016, the report said more countries declined than improved when it came to corruption.
The highest ranked countries were Denmark and New Zealand, which each scored 90, Finland with 89 and Sweden with 88. The report said each of those countries has an open government, free press and independent judicial systems. It added that highly ranked countries in general also allow citizens to access information about how public money is spent.
Bottom of index
On the bottom of the index, Somalia ranked as the country with the most perceived corruption for the 10th consecutive year. It scored a 10, with the report noting concerns about corruption in its parliamentary elections and a presidential vote that was postponed three times.
South Sudan (11), North Korea (12) and Syria (13) were also at the bottom of the index.
Transparency International said low-ranked countries feature untrustworthy public institutions like the police and court system, basic services that are lacking because funding is misappropriated, anti-corruption laws that are ignored if they exist and people frequently faced with extortion.
The five countries that serve as the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council represent varying stages of the index, with Britain (81) among the least corrupt, followed by the United States (74) and France (69), while China (40) and Russia (29) scored as more corrupt.
Five of the 10 lowest scoring nations came from the Middle East and North Africa: Syria (13), Yemen (14), Sudan (14), Libya (14) and Iraq (17).
“These countries are also inflicted with political instability, war, internal conflicts and terrorism, stressing the fact that war and conflict fuel corruption and in particular political corruption,” the report says.
Protests and change
Transparency International also noted the wave of protests and in some cases changes in government that spread across the region in 2011, saying “the majority of Arab countries have failed to fulfill the will of the people to build democratic systems allowing for greater transparency and accountability.”
The report cited improvements in Tunisia (41), saying it adopted a national anti-corruption strategy and a law governing access to information.
For the Asia-Pacific region, the report listed 19 of 30 countries in the bottom half of the index, blaming the low scores on unaccountable governments, a lack of oversight and corruption scandals that have called into question trust in government. It noted improvements in Afghanistan, which still ranks very low with a 15, but has nearly doubled its score since 2013.
Transparency International said the main stories for the Asia-Pacific have yet to fully play out, with the new president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte relying extensively on anti-corruption rhetoric during his campaign, but also attacking media and using intimidation that could affect democratic institutions. The group noted concerns linked to graft allegations against Malaysia’s prime minister and the impeachment for corruption of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the report highlights the improvements of Cape Verde (59) and Sao Tome and Principe (46), with each country holding clean elections in 2016, and Sao Tome and Principe carrying out a smooth transition of power. The report also cited Ghana (43) among a group of six countries in the region that significantly declined from 2015 to 2016, saying corruption there led to citizens voting out an incumbent president for the first time in the country’s history.