And the most corrupt nation this year is....

It's a tie between Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia. Elsewhere, bankrupt Greece, one-party China, and various 'Arab Spring' nations stand out in Transparency International's annual rankings.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
An anti-Morsi protester holds an Egypt flag as she walks in front of riot police in front of the presidential palace in Cairo Tuesday. Egypt fell by six places in Transparency International’s corruption index to 118th place this year.

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Corruption is a major threat across the globe, impacting citizen’s perceptions of their leaders and trust for their government, regardless of the level of development or economic ranking. Corruption can also play a role in political unrest, as seen around the world from the Middle East to China to Greece.

Today, Transparency International released its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012, measuring perceptions of how corrupt public sectors seem to be based on data sources from independent institutions in each country based on a period of 24 months. Transparency International notes that “levels of bribery, abuse of power and secret dealings are still very high in many countries.” Out of the 176 countries ranked in this year’s index, some two-thirds scored below 50, with zero indicating a perception of high levels of corruption and 100 indicating a perception of openness or clean dealings in the government. The US ranked 19th, up from 24th in 2011.

Worldwide, New Zealand, Denmark, and Finland had the highest scores, aided by strong systems ensuring public access to information and regulations that keep politicians and the political system in check. On the other end of the spectrum, North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan brought up the rear, all characterized by a lack of transparent and accountable leaders and public institutions in shambles.

“After a year of focus on corruption, we expect governments to take a tougher stance against the abuse of power…. [S]ocieties continue to pay the high cost of corruption,” said Huguette Labell, chair of Transparency International. The organization notes:

Corruption translates into human suffering, with poor families being extorted for bribes to see doctors or to get access to clean drinking water. It leads to failure in the delivery of basic services like education or healthcare. It derails the building of essential infrastructure, as corrupt leaders skim funds.

Take Greece, for example. The past year has seen endless protests over public leadership, false reporting on financial status, and strict austerity measures. “Greece's global ranking fell from 80th in 2011 to 94th in 2012, reflecting the country's continuing economic turmoil and widespread tax evasion,” reports the BBC, making Greece the European Union country most perceived as corrupt.

And perceptions of corruption in public officials may – inadvertently – encourage corruption in society at large.  Earlier this year on the Greek island of Zakynthos, it was discovered that at least 600 people were suspected of falsely claiming to be blind in order to get disability payments. As The Christian Science Monitor reports, the discovery hit a nerve with many who felt country leadership and a general culture of corruption was to blame.

The scandal has only fueled Greeks’ cynicism towards a political and social system that has brought the country close to ruin.

“I feel very bitter towards our politicians,” says Nikolaos Plessas, sipping thick black coffee in his cafe in a village of pastel-coloured cottages on Zakynthos.

“They have a [darn] cheek to even run for election after what they’ve done. Hard-working people like me fund their extravagant lifestyles. I won’t be voting next month.”

The campaign being waged by the mayor on Zakynthos is a microcosm of the much bigger effort required by Greece’s politicians to curb fraud, corruption, tax evasion and other long-standing abuses in order to put the country’s economic house in order.

Many Greeks say that will require more than legislation – it requires an entire change of culture.

“The whole system is sick,” says Mr. Skiadopoulos, [a] businessman. “Everybody is corrupt in Greece – the lawyers, the doctors, the judicial system, police, customs – everybody. All of us are guilty, all of us are responsible for what has happened.

“We need to change our whole mentality. Our European partners need to come here and be aggressive in pushing us to change. If they still think we are the devil of Europe, then they must throw us out.”

In releasing the 2012 Perceptions of Corruption Index, Transparency International is not only encouraging governments to integrate anticorruption measures into their system of governance, but empowering citizens to do the same. China, for example, was ranked 80th this year on the index, with a score of 39 in terms of perceived corruption. Corruption was a prominent issue in China this year, with the Bo Xilai scandal grabbing headlines and a rare leadership transition with China’s new leader Xi Jinping warning of “political unrest if corruption remains unchecked,” reports the Financial Times.

However, the Monitor’s China bureau chief, Peter Ford, reports that there have been some grassroots measures taken in China – aided by the rise of social media – to keep politicians in check.

Pity the poor Chinese official.

For years he has been able to get away with almost any kind of behavior, unaccountable to the public and rarely held to account by his superiors.

Suddenly, as two mid-ranking bureaucrats are discovering to their chagrin, he practically cannot even hitch up his shirt cuffs in public, let alone throw his weight around, without the public jumping on his case and possibly getting him fired.

Not because Chinese politics have changed, mind you, but because of Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media forum that has trained a critical public eye on people in authority across the land.

Just ask Yang Dacai. As head of Shaanxi Province’s Safety Supervision Bureau, he was called to the scene of a ghastly crash 10 days ago that had killed 36 bus passengers. For some reason, he was smiling inanely in a reporter’s photograph of the scene that went viral on Weibo, and which infuriated internauts.

Within a couple of days, he had been identified, and five photographs of him in different circumstances wearing five different luxury watches had been scoured from the Web and posted on Weibo. Where, demanded indignant citizens smelling corruption, had a civil servant earning $1,500 a month found the money to buy $40,000 worth of wristwatches?

Mr. Yang is currently under investigation by the Shaanxi provincial disciplinary body, which is looking into allegations of bribery.

And then there’s the Middle East, which witnessed historic uprisings starting in 2011 in response to repressive and corrupt leadership among other issues of graft, governance, and democratic freedoms. Although some countries, such as Egypt, took promising steps in the aftermath by holding free and fair presidential elections and drafting a new constitution, large-scale protests have taken place over how the constitution-drafting process has played out, as well as President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to call a national referendum on it for Dec. 15. Critics also charge that the draft dodged central issues of concern, as the Monitor’s correspondent in Egypt recently noted:

While focusing on disagreements between Islamists and secularists, the drafters missed an opportunity to address issues like decentralization of power, effectiveness of governance, and corruption.

Others had hoped the constitution would do more to achieve social justice and alter what they say is a state structure that contributes to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Egypt fell by six places in Transparency International’s index to 118th this year, with a score of 32. Other nations that took part in the so-called Arab Spring – which Transparency International sees as tied to public frustration over corruption, reports Reuters – also fell in the ranking, including Tunisia, Morocco, and Syria, which is suffering a civil war. Libya, however, rose in the rankings. (Note: Transparency International made changes to its methodology this year, so the rankings may not be perfect comparisons between 2011 and 2012.)

"We know that frustration about corruption brought people out onto the streets in the Arab world," Christoph Wilcke, Transparency International director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Reuters.

"We've observed that in countries where substantial change occurred they're still struggling to put in place new systems of governance. That's reflected in these scores. The hope hasn't materialized yet in more serious anti-corruption programmes."

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