Transparency International’s index reveals 124 nations stagnant in the fight against corruption. What forms does corruption take in politics, and what can be done to confront it?
“Corruption is paid by the poor,” warns Pope Francis, highlighting an unsettling reality: those least able to afford it, endure corruption’s harshest consequences.
The publication of the Corruption Perceptions Index 2022 (CPI), which uses a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), has shed light on the efforts taken by policymakers to combat corruption in different countries.
The report indicates that out of the 180 countries assessed, 124 have made no progress in fighting corruption across any levels. This staggering statistic underscores the severity and pervasiveness of the issue.
Unpacking the Costs of Corruption
What exactly is corruption? At its core, it is the misuse of power for private gain, including acts such as bribery, embezzlement, nepotism and fraud. Corruption can range from grand manipulations, like a massive oil contract tailored for personal gain, to minor infractions like a bribe given to accelerate a visa process.
Corruption has been the root cause of many societal problems, it cripples the government’s efforts to implement effective laws, protect its citizens and increases the disparities among various ethnic groups.
Prominent political scientist, Joseph Nye, has examined the complex costs and benefits associated with corruption. He argues that one key factor driving corruption is the tendency for individuals to justify it as a necessary transaction for allowing people to achieve their objectives.
Upon evaluation, Nye concluded that corruption can, paradoxically, spur political development by promoting capital formation, reducing bureaucratic red tape, fostering entrepreneurship and facilitating the integration of various societal groups.
However, corruption also exacts a hefty toll, leading to political instability, resource misallocation, lost foreign aid and eroding government legitimacy. In most instances, he contends, the costs of corruption far outweigh its potential benefits.
Corruption Across Different Political Systems
Corruption could vary across governments and regimes due to factors such as education, culture and power distribution among groups in such regions. Tackling corruption across governments with different political systems is a complicated exercise that requires careful evaluation of its alternatives.
In authoritarian regimes, corruption stems from an uneven distribution of political power and restricted press freedom. These regimes enable those in power to exploit their position for personal gain, often manipulating industries through corrupt transactions.
The bureaucratic systems in such states can be characterised by a lack of integrity, poor accountability and misplaced incentives. This, compounded by uncompetitive market structures and lenient penalties for corrupt practices, only exacerbates the issue.
However, even within authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian regimes, the levels of corruption can vary. Singapore, for instance, with a score of 83/100, is ranked as the fifth least corrupt country on the CPI. Its high ranking is largely due to its stringent legal framework, rigorous law enforcement and a cultural norm that does not tolerate corruption.
Nonetheless, authoritarian systems take many forms. Consolidated autocratic systems, such as single-party or military dictatorships, tend to have institutional structures that can provide checks on corruption.
In contrast, personalistic dictatorships, where power is primarily vested in a single individual, often exhibit higher levels of corruption due to unchecked power concentration, lack of accountability, resource control and patronage.
In this context, consider single-party states like China and Cuba, both ranked 65 with a CPI score of 45/100, which demonstrate lower corruption levels than personalistic dictatorships like Russia under Vladimir Putin (ranked 137 with a score of 28/100) and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (ranked 101 with a score of 36/100).
Meanwhile, the military dictatorship in Thailand holds a rank of 101, indicating a comparable level of perceived corruption to that of Turkey.
Despite the inherent checks and balances of democratic systems designed to discourage corruption, it remains a stubbornly pervasive issue. This insidious force chips away at the integrity of public institutions — those built to serve the people — fuelling inequality, undermining social justice and eroding public trust.
While the root causes of corruption are often complex and multifaceted, it’s worth noting that certain economic conditions, such as low per-capita income, high-income taxes, or rampant inflation, tend to intensify the likelihood of corrupt practices.
Consider democracies like South Sudan (12/100), Afghanistan (24/100) and Haiti (17/100), which have been transitioning towards a democratic system and face substantial corruption challenges. These nations, marked by low per-capita income and high inflation, grapple with high levels of perceived corruption.
Regardless of their political systems, all forms of government can be susceptible to corruption. With the levels of corruption varying widely between different countries and regimes, the picture is complex. This naturally leads to the next section: what are the potential solutions to this pervasive problem?
Effective Strategies for Combating Corruption
Policymakers have been evaluating various options to combat all forms of corruption. From signing conventions to implementing regulations, a range of instruments has been used to fight corruption.
In autocratic regimes, heads of the state often use their powers to control corruption. It could be seen as implementing independent authorities that hold bureaucrats responsible for their actions.
Legislations and meritocracy
Introducing mandates and a code of conduct for government officials has been instrumental in tackling corruption in autocratic regimes. For example, in Qatar, the government has implemented various legal, judicial and bureaucratic reforms and modifications to the public financial management and redistribution policies.
Having been a signatory of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption since 2005, Qatar has implemented key reforms. The Emir has given more autonomy to the financial authority, enabling it to publicly disclose its findings on corruption and ramped up penalties for officials guilty of bribery.
Such reforms have resulted in Qatar being perceived as one of the least corrupt states in the Middle East. Despite this progress, Qatar’s fall in the CPI score from 64 to 58 marks its lowest ebb ever, indicating concerns. Its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has spurred scrutiny, with allegations of bribery and concerns over worker conditions.
The need for stronger mechanisms to detect and prevent systemic corruption is therefore necessary. Moreover, current anti-corruption legislation could potentially be misused to target critics and whistleblowers, and this weakness too would require attention.
Meanwhile, Singapore, one of the least corrupt countries in the world, has focused its efforts on meritocracy by offering competitive salary packages and considerable incentives to preserve an honest workforce.
Digitisation of operations
The introduction of digitisation in operations has also played an integral role in combating corruption, as officials would find it difficult to demand bribes through electronic payments.
In democratic governments, press freedom and political competition have controlled corruption. A strong opposition keeps the activities of the government in check and critically evaluates its policies.
To combat corruption, democratic governments could establish rigorous regulatory procedures and develop concrete anti-corruption measures. This includes the creation of a public procurement law that sets the terms and conditions at which the governments provide lucrative contracts to different parties.
Civil society plays a crucial role in the fight against corruption, using investigative methods and social media platforms to inform the public. The website ipaidabribe.com, created in India, enables citizens to report instances of bribery.
Governments can also partner with international institutions to prevent the laundering of corruptly obtained assets. For example, the World Bank-UN Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative collaborates with governments to halt money laundering from corruption.
Privatisation and deregulation of industries is another strategy, reducing opportunities for policymakers to exert undue influence.
Despite the differences in the level of corruption across several governments and in the execution of reforms, one can notice the similarities in the instruments employed. In all scenarios, the governments could implement stringent rules and regulations to combat corruption.
Policymakers need to be vigilant in the selection of the appropriate policy instruments by evaluating the costs involved in implementing them to tackle one of the most pressing issues that societies face today.