The primary causes of corruption within a country are greed coupled with infrastructural and even constitutional failings. Problems of poverty and civil war all too often go hand in hand with the amorality endemic in corrupt countries.
Monomaniacal dictators for whom personal fortunes of $40 billion aren't enough can instill a culture of institutional corruption. In other places, corruption is caused by having no central authority or rule of law at all.
But before looking into the harsh reality of the world's most corrupt countries, let’s give a shout out to the Good Guys. All five Scandinavian countries are among the top twelve least corrupt nations in the world. The only North American country to make the top 10 is Canada, according to Transparency International this year. On a scarier note, on a scale of 0-100 - with zero being rock bottom, and 100 being pristinely corruption free - only one-third of the countries in the world cleared a passing grade of 50.
Those that failed to meet the grade included a few First Worlders who ought to be ashamed of themselves, including the USA. Here, according to Transparency International, are the 10 most thriving Factories of Sadness, beginning with a three-way tie for Most Corrupt Country in the world in 2015.
10 TURKMENISTAN: 17/100
Turkmenistan has been a cauldron of violent uncertainty since Alexander the Great conquered the whole neighborhood over 2300 years ago. It was a veritable crossroads of civilization, on the legendary Silk Road. In modern times it sits smack on the fault line between Islam and Russia, by whom it was first annexed in the late nineteenth century.
WikiLeaks published a diplomatic cable listing the cost of bribing a way out of fines: running a red light, $50; drunk driving $150-22o; speeding tickets are forgotten for as little as $5. Someone could make a fortune selling gift cards...
It's the kind of endemic corruption bred by repressive dictatorships like the old Soviet Union. To Turkmens or foreigners attracted by its huge oil and gas reserves, it’s just a cost of doing business - one German businessman was convicted of giving a $60 million yacht to a senior official for favorable consideration. As with dictatorships, the fraud starts at the top and infects every transaction at any level of society. Turkmenistan is one of those so-called democratic republics where the President, in this case delightfully named Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, won 97% of the vote in the last so-called election. Well done Mr. President.
9 9. UZBEKISTAN: 17/100
An online search quickly makes you wonder how this country got ranked so highly; Uzbekistan is a notoriously violent country. The UN Committee Against Torture has concluded that Uzbek authorities inflict “an epidemic of torture and police abuse; that their journalists and human rights activists are routinely imprisoned and that the government stands accused of sterilizing tens of thousands of women to suppress population growth”.
Politically well-connected ‘entrepreneurs’ have been known to extort entire companies from their rightful owners by threatening detention in the notorious prison system. Politico Magazine calls it “The Corridor of Corruption”.
All allegations are angrily denied by the Uzbek human rights chief. If all this isn’t ugly enough, the nation still receives billions in American aid because it’s a strategically invaluable hub of supply lines into and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
8 SYRIA: 17/100
Technically tied with the latter two nations, Syria ‘wins’ the highest spot because its practices have the best chance of officially becoming War Crimes against its own people.
The U.S. Treasury Department had this to say about Syria’s culture of corruption. “The Assad regime's cronyism and corruption have a corrosive effect, disadvantaging innocent Syrian businessmen and entrenching a regime that pursues oppressive and destabilizing policies, including beyond Syria's borders."
The country’s tyrannical, hugely wealthy leader Bashar Al-Assad had a choice when the “Arab Spring” - with its demands for political change - arrived in Syria. Either take his ill-gotten billions, step down, and let democracy run its course. Or kill hundreds of thousands with guns, bombs, poison gas and good old fashioned starvation and completely destroy the country. He went with the latter.
7 IRAQ: 16/100
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn rule of foreign policy: You break it. You own it. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq shattered Iraqi society into bits, where it remains.
The new PM has vowed to crack down on corruption, even if it means being assassinated. In Iraq, there's no shortage of people who'd be glad to oblige - the New York Times has said that the usual exit from power for Iraqi leaders is in a coffin.
Currently, the most popular form of corruption is for Army commanders to collect pay for soldiers who don’t exist. There are believed to be 50,000 so-called Ghost Soldiers. Iraq is an oil superpower but the billions in export earnings seem more likely to line profiteers’ pockets than to be put to good use.
The nation has a good chance of not existing in the near future as the warring factions of Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and now ISIS militias seem determined to break the country into 4 pieces.
6 LIBYA: 15/100
Libya is yet another oil producer with nothing to show for it but strife and bloodshed. It’s difficult to categorize the country’s power structure because there is none.
Rebels celebrated over the body of the late dictator Muammar Gadhafi but have no apparent desire or ability to come together to build a functioning state. It’s also hard to call it a corrupt economy because corruption is the economy for warlords, judges and military leaders. Factional fighting still claims lives every month.
And of course, Western companies have had no qualms about getting right down into the corruption to nab rich contracts. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating “banks, private equity firms and hedge funds that may have violated anti-bribery laws.”
5 SOUTH SUDAN: 14/100
How much misery can one country stand and still exist? South Sudan is almost brand new but the region has long had a miserable, heartbreaking existence. It was driven off the lot in 2011, declaring its independence from Sudan after much suffering.
But the suffering goes on. Even now, peace talks have failed to resolve a political dispute that has led to inter-ethnic fighting that has displaced at least a million people.
The President Salva Kiir Mayardit likes to wear a black cowboy hat gifted to him by George W. Bush. But when you’re the Public Relations advisor to the President of a country that Human Rights Watch says is still committing war crimes, you're not likely to tell him black hats are for bad guys. Or, maybe he knows.
4 SUDAN: 11/100
Any place where ethnic cleansing is alive and well, and slavery is still in business, is corrupt to its very core. The US Committee for Refugees has estimated that since 1983, war and famine have killed 2 million people.
Sudan’s national motto translates as “Victory is Ours” and is badly in need of a rewrite. The nation seems doomed, with a monster as leader, a whole bunch of rival Muslim sects and tribes combined with a death-defying desert climate. And of course, a whole whack of oil money for everyone to fight over.
Ancient feuds, present hatred and the prospect of vast wealth have always been a formula for inhuman behavior. Like Syria, Sudan is a self-inflicted humanitarian emergency. And it’s only 4th - it gets worse?
3 AFGHANISTAN: 8/100
Yes, it gets worse.
Now we get down into the Single Digit Club. A three-way tie for the most corrupt nation on earth. How’s this for openers? The CIA says Afghanistan faces these challenges: Criminality, insecurity, weak governance, lack of infrastructure, and the Afghan Government’s "difficulty in extending rule of law to all parts of the country."
Across the country? The Afghan government doesn’t exist outside the capital, Kabul. It’s a brutal mix of ruthless tribal leaders and warlords in constant conflict over the meagre spoils the country offers - except for heroin, which is abundant.
Former President Hamid Karzai and his cronies helped themselves to generous portions of American aid and were not above embezzling from banks for grocery money and the country has fought fiercely against others. Afghan fighters have whacked every big army to come their way, from Genghis Khan to the Soviet Union. But it’s the wild, wild east. It’s corruption or death. Or both. What did they do right enough to get 8 points?
2 NORTH KOREA: 8/100
A charter member of the Axis of Evil, it’s hard to document exactly what corrupt practices go on because North Korea is fiercely protective of its privacy. But for decades North Korea has been run by less than sane but very nasty dictators.
The Jongs, Sun, Il and now Un, AKA Supreme Leader, have run the place like a national version of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. One critic describes corruption as endemic and pervasive: “All laws become irrelevant in the face of the omnipotent divinity of the Kim household. The laws of North Korea are corrupt in that they are executed according to double standards.”
It brings to mind one of the most astute and misquoted lines in history. It really goes “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” That was the very influential political advisor and historian Lord Acton in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton.
North Korea is a major exporter of heroin and amphetamines, a big player in human trafficking and a world power in counterfeiting foreign currency. Hey it’s a living.
1 Somalia: 8/100
Somalia has a horrific reputation on the international stage. The reasons Somalia is awarded the dubious top spot despite the three-way tie is that it really doesn’t exist as a functioning state. Governments don’t collect taxes. Tens of millions in foreign aid disappears into thin air. Companies pay “non-statutory fees” to officials to stay out of trouble.
With no revenue, governments don’t pay employees who are left selling their guns or other equipment as well as collecting those bribes... or, non-statutory fees. Beyond the failed state thing, death and misery in Somalia can come in many different forms, in both manmade and natural disasters.
The life expectancy is 55. The country is home to violent al-Shabaab extremists. And Somalia is always in the throes of drought or flooding, denying the long-suffering population of even the subsistence agriculture they live on when not being robbed and killed by some clan or warlord. Here is human failing at its worst.