Making the world flat-out against corruption

The latest ranking of perceived corruption among nations doesn't show much change. But other evidence points to a grassroots rebellion against graft in hopes of a culture of honesty.

A protester in a Pharaoh headdress holds up a placard during a demonstration on Tahrir Square in Cairo November 30, 2012. Thousands of Egyptians protested against President Mohamed Mursi on Friday after an Islamist-led assembly raced through approval of a new constitution in a bid to end a crisis over the Islamist leader's newly expanded powers. The banner reads, "No to a dictator. Mursi is to Egypt as Hitler was to Germany. Too much authority and power lead to corruption".

The best barometer of humanity’s honesty is a yearly index of corruption as seen within each nation. It is compiled by Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that aims to both shame and praise countries with a ranking of perceived bribe-taking and other graft. This year, it reports a “growing outcry” worldwide over corruption, labeling it “the most talked-about problem.”

Exposing officials on the take is now easier with more social media and tougher antigraft laws in many countries. And when the world economy slows down, intolerance of the unfairness and inefficiencies of corruption rises.

And yet these annual rankings have not changed all that much. Two-thirds of the 176 countries are still in the bottom half of the corruption scale. Even for Egypt and Tunisia, two Arab Spring countries where supposedly clean Islamists were elected after the ouster of corrupt dictators, the perception of corruption went up.

The good news is how the global fight against corruption has been taken to the grass-roots level.

The Arab Spring is driven by popular frustration over corruption as much as a desire for freedom. India has seen a middle-class revolt resulting in new antigraft legislation. Brazil just held the largest corruption trial of former politicians ever in its history. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has begun to sack corrupt officials as a way to compete for popularity with an anti-Putin protest movement. And most of the thousands of protests in China each year are against local corrupt officials. 

That country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, warned last month that corruption could “kill the party and ruin the country.” Chosen by the Communist Party for his clean image, he is noted for saying “transparency is the best anticorrosive.” And indeed, the Internet in China is abuzz with tales of corrupt acts that the official media miss.

Within private organizations, about 5 percent of revenues are lost to fraud each year, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Worldwide, that amounts to a loss of more than $3.5 trillion.

It doesn’t take a strong morality for people to oppose corruption. They perceive it in shoddy bridges, reduced safety nets, or rising crime – a form of “dirty tax” usually hitting the poor. At some point, they no longer accept dishonesty as inevitable or as an intractable part of their culture. Mass movements rise up on the Web, usually led by civil society groups, and assert the need for clean governance.

In the last two years, the Group of Twenty has agreed on plans to suppress graft. In her travels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made a point of meeting with local activists fighting corruption to encourage them. More foreign aid from the West to developing nations is now tied to improved governance.

Is the world at a tipping point against corruption? The yearly index has yet to show it. But plenty of other indicators on the ground show humanity prefers openness and honesty in its official dealings.

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