2011 has been a year of passionate political protests around the world, often provoked by high levels of corruption in public life. Many citizens feel their leaders and public institutions are neither transparent nor accountable, and all too often are systemically corrupt.
Today marks the release of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which ranks 183 countries based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. Not surprisingly the events and public anger of 2011 are reflected in the results.
Eurozone countries suffering debt crises, notably Greece and Italy, are among the lowest-scoring EU countries - reflecting public authorities' failure to tackle the bribery and tax evasion that are key drivers of debt crisis.
North Korea appears on the CPI for the first time and makes its entrance at the bottom, ranked at 182 in joint position with Somalia. Both Tunisia and Egypt have dropped 14 places since last year's index.
Corruption hits the poorest hardest and it is a mistake to think that citizens are resigned to accepting it. One such country where corruption is a regular experience for many is Afghanistan, which ranks near the bottom of this year's index at 180, in joint place with Myanmar. Afghans are now paying bribes at twice the level of two years ago, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. They often have to pay bribes for services that they are already entitled to such as access to medical care, education and justice in court. The current level of $158 per bribe is equivalent to 37% of the average annual Afghan income. In poll after poll, Afghans citizens don't rank the Taliban, terrorism or the economy as their highest worry. Corruption is their top concern and tackling it, their most urgent need.
This concern is seen again and again by Transparency International (TI) colleagues who work at a grassroots level in over 50 countries to provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption, helping them to pursue their complaints. To date, TI has dealt with more than 96,000 individual cases.
Closer to home, the UK is ranked 16th this year with a score of 7.8 out of 10, compared to 7.6 in 2010. The introduction of the UK Bribery Act is likely to account for this small improvement. However, more recent events such as the phone hacking scandal have shown that there are still too many areas of corruption vulnerability in the UK public sector.
Given the UK government's promise of zero tolerance for corruption, the UK should be achieving a top ten ranking. However, practices that have been taken for granted for many years are still awaiting change, such as the cosy relationship between politicians and the media and poorly-regulated 'revolving door' employment between companies, political offices and the public sector.
Corruption is not just something that happens abroad. It exists at home too. Despite this fact, there is no individual or institution with responsibility to coordinate a robust response to corruption in the UK. Ironically the government has an 'overseas anti-corruption champion', reflecting its underlying assumption that corruption is a problem overseas but not here. This remit must be extended to cover domestic corruption. Before it calls for better standards abroad the UK needs to address urgently the problems in its own back yard.
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