Corruption abounds in all governments. This healthy cynicism keeps us insulated from extra shock and disappointment whenever that latest disappointing or worrying case comes to light (which seems all too frequent), but also keeps us constantly critical and demanding fairness from our elected leaders. It’s a healthy dynamic in any decidedly “open” society to assume corruption happens even - or perhaps especially - when and where it isn’t seen.
In the most socially progressive countries, the popular perception is that anti-corruption measures are constantly at work through laws, committees, watchdogs, investigations and journalists that never sleep because their mandate — preventing, exposing and ideally punishing abuses of power — is never satisfied. The combination of power and politics has always engendered suspicion, because a government’s ability to abuse power has always been the rule; of course, their tendency to indulge in that ability is (we like to think) the exception.
But while the prevalence of corruption in even the most socially progressive countries is a matter of debate, the word doesn’t exactly carry the same meaning across the world. In Canada for example, corruption might be an unelected senator steering special work contracts to friends, or billing the government $90,000 for housing expenses which, if and when it comes to light, will probably result in the senator repaying the amount then retiring on a full $120,000/year parliamentary pension.
In Nigeria, corruption might be a president looting multiple billions from the public treasury over the course of years which, if and when brought to trial, mobilizes an arsenal of legal teams and financial protections to delay charges for decades until a settlement—likely a fraction of what was stolen—gets repaid.
In 2012, the World Bank estimated $40 billion dollars is siphoned out of developing countries through corruption every single year. This means entire countries engaged in massive legal and financial fraud with the compliance of numerous parties across the globe — banks, oil companies, drug cartels — that sustain governance for and by the powerful and wealthy few in numerous disadvantaged countries.
That global indexes chart its prevalence on a regular basis tells us that, like it or not, corruption is a fundamental reality of political life. Here’s a look at the 10 most corrupt countries in the world this year - based on the latest data which the 2014 Social Progress Index sourced from Transparency International. Each country has been given a score on a scale of 0-100, with 0 representing the highest level of corruption.
10 Tajikistan: 22
Weak rule of law and lack of transparency in Tajikistan is characteristic of former Soviet states in Central Asia. Its fragile economy is largely attributed to pervasive corruption at all levels of government, skewed reforms and economic mismanagement in the favour of elite interests. Also a key transit country for Afghan narcotics, many government officials sit back and take a slice of black market operations. We can only speculate that revenue from the state-owned Tajik Aluminum Company—which controls Tajikistan’s biggest (official) industry—isn’t very well accounted for, either.
9 Democratic Republic of Congo: 22
A relative of former DRC president (1965-1997) Mobutu Sese Seko once poignantly described their process for looting the country:
“Mobutu would ask one of us to go to the bank and take out a million. We’d go to an intermediary and tell him to get five million. He would go to the bank with Mobutu’s authority, and take out ten. Mobutu got one, and we took the other nine.”
With that kind of history, it’s difficult to imagine the DRC playing fair today even with current-president Joseph Kabila’s modest reforms. Little of the alleged $5 billion Mobutu stole throughout his reign has been recovered; one small attempt at asset recovery failed in 2009 after Swiss courts ruled the statute of limitations had expired, and $6.7 million in frozen assets returned to the late president’s family.
The worst part? The DRC is thought to be the most resource-rich country in the world, while the Congolese people remain among the poorest.
8 Burundi: 21
Government corruption proliferates over poorer populations who have little resources to hold them accountable, who in turn adapt to poorer conditions and come to expect even less, leaving government even freer to reinforce institutionalized corruption. While one in 15 adults has AIDS and 80% live in poverty in Burundi, resources continue to leak out of the country. Much like the Congo, its corruption-ridden government fails to develop comprehensive public services like health and electricity and suppresses private competition that could otherwise free the country from economic stagnancy.
7 Venezuela: 20
Venezuelan officials have been known to consort not only with drug traffickers and serial murderer-kidnappers, but apparently terrorists as well (accusations say the government has funded Hezbollah). Read up on Venezuela for accounts of judges forced to acquit army commanders of shipping multiple tons narcotics, or heck, check the news: Just two months ago the commander of the Venezuelan National Guard got busted with 554 kilos of cocaine. Last month a study found at least $22.5 billion of unaccounted public funds have been transferred from Venezuela to private foreign accounts, so we hear the plight of the hundreds of thousands currently protesting in the streets of Caracas.
6 Cambodia: 20
Companies looking to do business in Cambodia need line their pockets. The kickback culture here is no secret, and one particular clause in the latest Anti-Corruption Law, passed in 2010, doesn’t exactly help: Whistleblowers unable to prove their claims can be jailed for up to 6 months. Almost 70% of Cambodians live on less than $2 US a day; meanwhile, the government has leased 45% of the country's resource-rich land to private investors. Where the money goes is anyone's guess.
5 Chad: 19
In an ideal world, oil booms jumpstart economies and impart governments with millions in funds to funnel back into public services. With the completion of Chad’s new heavy-duty $4 billion pipeline in 2003, which connects its oilfields to the Atlantic coast for export worldwide, oil has taken over as the country’s biggest industry. But the Chadian state—considered failed by many—remains too fractured to funnel those resources without more than a little leakage along the way.
4 Yemen: 18
It’s said Yemen loses $10 billion yearly through corrupt networks. The plain normalcy of corruption in all tiers of government—the judiciary and security forces included—undoubtedly remains one of Yemen’s biggest obstacles to not only economic development, but combating human rights abuses like extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrest and torture by government forces. Because money speaks so loudly here, real prospects for accountability and reform are simply bought right off the table.
3 Uzbekistan: 17
A non-public official “influencing” a public official isn’t a criminal offense in Uzbekistan. Policy here and even government positions themselves are essentially for sale to the highest bidder, and if a corruption case does somehow become a legal issue, it will almost certainly get thrown out by equally corrupt courts, or courts that don’t have the time, money or manpower to properly prosecute them.
2 Iraq: 16
Corruption doesn’t happen in a vacuum. While the country certainly fared no better under Saddam Hussein, as of 2008 $13 billion of Iraq’s oil revenues in U.S. care were improperly managed, $2.6 billion of which were totally unaccounted for. In the first four years of the Iraq War corruption lifted as much as 300,000 barrels a day from Iraq’s biggest industry. The (stated) objective of the War was change and reform, but Hussein’s legacy prevails in this country where oil pipelines remain solid and reliable, but revenue channels leak constantly.
1 Sudan: 11
It’s more than a little nerve racking that 24-year Sudanese president Al-Bashir, who allegedly has $9 billion of his country’s money stashed in London bank accounts, established Sudan’s first anti-corruption agency in 2012. A transparency ploy but nothing more: As you’d expect the agency has yet prosecute anyone, though in fact, Sudan continues arresting (and probably also extorts and tortures) anyone willing to make corruption allegations they can’t “prove”. Bribes and extortion, it seems, remain the nuts and bolts of the Sudanese public service, and as always, this cut-throat power pyramid has oil at its summit.