When anti-corruption protests succeed

The latest ranking of nations by corruption levels shows a link to levels of democracy. Popular demands for leaders with integrity are also demands for accountability and transparency.

Demonstrators march in anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan, Dec. 25.

In its latest survey of 180 countries by levels of corruption, Transparency International tried something different. For the first time, the global watchdog group measured links between public-sector corruption and each country’s basic freedoms, rule of law, and democracy. The researchers need not look too far to find current negative examples.

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed mass protests in two of the most-corrupt countries, Sudan and Venezuela, which are also among the most nondemocratic. Each country could be on the brink of regime change. In each country, demonstrators demand the kind of honesty and accountability in governance that they see in healthy democracies.

In Sudan, which is Africa’s third-biggest country, the regime chose to balance its budget by raising bread prices rather than by reducing corruption. The move brought people into the streets in unprecedented unity across ethnic divisions. In Venezuela, the siphoning of oil wealth for the political elite and military brass finally united the opposition in the elected legislature and led to popular demands for an end to a culture of impunity.

The report found full democracies scored an average of 75 out of 100 on the corruption index. Flawed democracies averaged 49 while autocratic regimes averaged 30. Yet the real value in the survey lies in a list of countries that have reduced corruption by improving their democracies. That link was clear.

In the past seven years, 20 countries have made such progress. They include Estonia in Europe, Senegal and Ivory Coast in Africa, and Guyana in South America. None are perfect. Even Denmark, a strong democracy that is also ranked as the least corrupt, saw its largest bank caught in a huge money-laundering scheme last year. Yet nations on the list can provide lessons for the majority of countries that remain below average in the TI rankings.

Anti-corruption reforms in Senegal and Ivory Coast, for example, are a result of a new “political will ... demonstrated by their respective leaders.” In Argentina, Ecuador, and El Salvador, reform is led by better investigations in corruption cases against high-profile individuals, including some former presidents. Estonia’s progress is a result of radical reform of the courts and public administration, a relatively clean privatization of state enterprises, and digital transparency in government dealings.

Among its own recommendations, TI researchers cite the need for a broad societal consensus in favor of integrity in public institutions. “Engagement of citizens in oversight of government decisions and spending, particularly at the local level, not only crowd-sources accountability but promises to re-invigorate the democratic process,” the report states.

So while watching protests like those in Sudan or Venezuela, it is helpful to view them as simply an outbreak of citizen engagement in favor of integrity. Many other countries have been there, done that.

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