“In authoritarian contexts where control rests with a few, social movements are the last remaining check on power. It is the collective power held by ordinary people from all walks of life that will ultimately deliver accountability.”

Daniel Eriksson – Chief Executive Officer, Transparency International Secretariat

This quote from Eriksson is the resounding theme of 2021’s Corruption Perceptions Index (“CPI”) from Transparency International (“TI”).

Of course, the correlation is clear between state-level corruption and a denial of democratic freedoms: when citizens are denied their right to hold those in power to account, the success of anti-corruption efforts depends solely on the motivations of public officials. This environment is then a breeding ground for a kleptocratic, systemically corrupt national ecosystem.

However, this year’s report delves beyond democratic decline to acknowledge the impact of wider human rights violations on a country’s efforts to fight corruption. We take a look at this, along with other key findings from 2021’s CPI, and the associated recommendations TI has put forward.

Released in January 2022, the latest update to TI’s CPI reveals that, globally, corruption levels are at a standstill.[1]

The CPI sets out to measure how corrupt each country’s public sector is perceived to be and is the most widely used global corruption ranking.[2] Alarmingly, the overall CPI findings indicate that, at a global level, there has been immaterial progress in the fight against corruption during the last decade. This time last year we reflected on corruption around the world in 2020, observing the increase in the number of private fraudsters seeking to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this activity being no secret, it is certainly disappointing to once again see from this year’s CPI that efforts to tackle corruption at a state level have been no more successful than in the private sector.

What is the purpose of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index?

The CPI is published annually by TI, an organisation that seeks to “expose the systems and networks that enable corruption to thrive, demanding greater transparency and integrity in all areas of public life.”[3] Through the CPI, TI assigns a score to each country indicating the perceived levels of government corruption there.[4] TI’s methodology involves the collation of data in relation to a total of 180 countries and territories, from 13 verified data sources at institutions including the World Bank and World Economic Forum. Collectively, this information then serves to paint an aggregated picture of the perceived levels of corruption in order to identify gaps and weaknesses in that territory’s fight against corruption.

What are the key findings revealed by the Corruption Perceptions Index?

Some of the key findings of this year’s CPI include the following:

  • Corruption levels are at a worldwide standstill, as the global average remains unchanged for the tenth year in a row. The CPI notes that despite commitments on paper, 131 countries (equivalent to 86%) have made no significant progress against corruption over the last decade.
  • Two-thirds of the countries have serious corruption problems (scoring below 50/100) and the scores of 27 countries – including Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Israel – show historic lows.
  • There has been a broad increase in human rights abuses and democratic decline. The CPI noted that rights and freedoms are not only being eroded in countries facing systemic corruption and weak institutions, but also within established democracies. Much of the fight against corruption relies upon individuals feeling empowered to challenge injustices; as such, the importance of respecting human rights cannot be overstated, as it plays a significant role in delivering such empowerment to a country’s people.
  • The global COVID-19 pandemic has been used in many countries as an excuse to curtail basic freedoms. Further, even historically high-performing countries (i.e. Western Europe and the European Union) show signs of decline as transparency and accountability issues have arisen in light of their response to the pandemic.
  • High-scoring countries with relatively “clean” public sectors continue to enable transnational corruption through the utilisation and abuse of anonymous shell companies.

What are Transparency International’s recommendations to better fight corruption?

In light of the issues highlighted by the report, TI’s key recommendations can be summarised as follows:

  • Governments must end disproportionate restrictions on freedoms (i.e. expression, association and assembly) introduced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and prioritise ensuring justice for crimes against human rights.
  • Restoring and strengthening institutional checks on power through independent public bodies (e.g. anti-corruption agencies and supreme audit institutions). These bodies will need to be resourceful and duly empowered to effectively detect and sanction corruption. In addition, Parliaments and the courts should seek to address and prevent Government overreach.
  • Combating transnational corruption by closing legal loopholes, regulating professional enablers of financial crime and enhancing enforcement.
  • Increasing transparency in public spending by demanding that Governments include anti-corruption safeguards in public procurement, as per commitments made in the June 2021 UNGASS political declaration.[5]

What does corruption look like globally?

Whilst uniformly insidious, forms of corruption vary from country to country. This year’s scores reveal that whilst the form may vary, a lack of improvement in corruption levels remains a global commonality for the tenth year running.

Countries at the top of the CPI are once again those in Western Europe and the European Union, although transparency and accountability in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic is something those regions continue to grapple with, threatening their relatively “clean” image.[6]

In contrast, the prevalence of armed conflict, violent transitions of power and increasing terrorist threats within Sub-Saharan Africa has meant lower scores, exacerbated by the continued failure of enforcement measures.[7] In the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”), a nepotistic overlap of power across both the political and private sphere has stifled civil and political freedoms. As such, progress in the MENA region to stamp out corruption has also been slow.[8]

How do human rights abuses impact levels of corruption?

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the 2021 CPI highlights parallels between the prevalence of human rights violations and levels of corruption in countries. Of the 180 analysed, 131 countries have made no significant progress against corruption, and 27 countries’ scores are at an all-time low. At the same time, TI observes a global decline in civil and democratic freedoms, going as far as to describe human rights as being “under assault”.[9]

This correlation cuts both ways. Corruption undermines the ability of governments to guarantee the human rights of their citizens, impacting the delivery of public services, the dispensation of justice and the provision of safety for all. Misuse or transnational theft of public funds has a clear, material impact on the civil freedoms enjoyed by a country’s citizens. In return, successfully tackling corruption relies upon both individuals and the media being able to speak freely and feel empowered to hold those in power to account. When this democratic freedom of expression and civil influence is not possible, the stage is set for corruption – and so the vicious cycle is assured: 90% of countries have seen their civil liberties scores decline since 2012, with those same territories concurrently seeing little to no improvement in their corruption scores.[10]

But countries that score well on the CPI are not off the hook when it comes to facilitating corruption elsewhere. The CPI’s analysis shows that corruption schemes are often facilitated by advanced economies who do well in their own CPI evaluations.[11] Such schemes often still exacerbate the repression of civil liberties worldwide, and allow autocrats to enjoy looted funds, launder their reputation and evade accountability.

Looking ahead: what needs to happen now?

This year’s iteration of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index provides confirmation that global efforts to combat corruption worldwide have stagnated. In continuation of the theme of a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively been weaponised by many countries as an excuse to curtail basic civil freedoms. A concurrent failure to combat human rights violations around the world has made it all the harder to find traction in the fight against corruption.

Improved human rights protections and greater transparency and accountability in all contexts is needed if the global direction of travel is to be reversed, from public expenditure to individual participation within the global economy. Professional enablement of financial crime can be mitigated by, for example, establishing stricter reporting obligations, regulating the use of shell companies, and improving enforcement measures.

Governments, including those of the UK, US and EU countries, have announced anti-corruption strategies which do include efforts to promote transparency and accountability, as well as enhanced enforcement.[12] However, such commitments have been made before, and the realisation of these plans largely remains to be seen. With reports like TI’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index holding global governments to account, there is no end in sight to the high level of scrutiny public officials face. As the promise of an end to the pandemic era grows ever closer, governments and regulators have an opportunity to refocus their efforts on materially tackling corruption and, in doing so, proving to the global community that they are seriously committed to progress.

[1] https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021

[2] The CPI reflects the views of experts and business people and uses data from 13 external sources. This data is collected from a variety of well known institutions, including the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, as well as private risk and consultancy companies, and think tanks.

[3] https://www.transparency.org/en/about

[4] The country’s score is the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0-100, where 0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean.

[5] https://undocs.org/A/RES/S-32/1

[6] https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://www.transparency.org/en/news/cpi-2021-highlights-insights

[10] https://www.transparency.org/en/news/cpi-2021-corruption-human-rights-democracy

[11] https://www.transparency.org/en/news/cpi-2021-highlights-insights

[12] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-anti-corruption-strategy-2017-to-2022; https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/United-States-Strategy-on-Countering-Corruption.pdf; https://www.reneweuropegroup.eu/news/2022-01-25/renew-europe-calls-for-a-comprehensive-global-anti-corruption-strategy

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