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Finance & Innovation

The unlikely heroes and villains of world corruption

Every year, an organisation called Transparency International releases its list of countries ranked by their level of perceived corruption, and every year, it’s the same suspects at each end of the list. The most corrupt countries are usually poor, possess weak education systems, have governments who make up their own rules, and there’s usually some sort of civil war going on. At the other end of the list, you can expect to see the names of countries that enjoy cross country skiing.
(Full interactive/zoomable image available here)
I’m confident that you could ignore the list for the next five years, check back in 2019, and see that the most and least corrupt countries on that year’s ranking fit the description I just laid out. Anyway, so I’ve just freed up five years of your time. You’re welcome. Since today is International Corruption Day, let’s use a minute or two of that five years to dig up some examples from Transparency International’s list that are actually a bit surprising.

Got problems, but not corrupt

Botswana's police even behave fairly to annoying dogs
Botswana, situated in the neighbourhood of highly corrupt countries like Zimbabwe and Angola, is the good guy of Africa. Despite having a major HIV problem placing strain on its communities, citizens and officials in the country generally play fair. Ranking 31st out of the 175 countries on the list (in order of least corrupt to most corrupt), Botswana would sit somewhere in the middle of European countries. Botswana has benefited from strong income due to mining, but mining booms can often make corruption worse, with shady governments and companies breaking all sorts of rules in order to get more of the proceeds than they deserve. Botswana has generally avoided this, and provides services to its citizens that people elsewhere in Africa could only dream of.

The good guys of Latin America

Judicial buildings, Montevideo, Uruguay

No, I’m not talking about Che Guevara and his exciting range of college dorm merchandise… you could actually argue that he wasn’t that much of a good guy at all. I’m actually referring to Chile and Uruguay, the two countries that are defying the decades-long corruption issue that has dogged Latin America. The cleaner systems in these two countries have helped them to jump ahead of neighbouring countries, with Chile’s economy performing far better than its traditional rival, Argentina. With Chile and Uruguay ranked equal 21st on the list, they’re outperforming well-regarded nations like France.

More about those Che Guevara t-shirts

Hugo Chavez and Pope Benedict
Recently deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the modern hero of choice for 18 year old liberal arts stoners worldwide. While his facial features may not lend themselves as well as Guevara’s to socialist revolutionary logos, aforementioned stoners will still happily give you a lengthy sermon about how awesome Chavez made Venezuela. Transparency International disagrees, with Venezuela ranked the most corrupt in all of Latin America (and 161st globally). The government machine pervades all aspects of life in the country, with a major reliance on oil revenue. The people of Venezuela are suffering from a lack of opportunities and investment.

What’s a Bhutan?

An excellent question. A Bhutan is a country, and not just any country. This small Himalayan kingdom, tucked between China and India, is known for its desire to preserve its traditional culture, its desire to use “national happiness” as a measure of whether it is prospering, and its pricey entry visas for tourists. Ranking 30th on Transparency International’s list, it’s vastly less corrupt than India (85th), China (100th) and Nepal (126th). So while Hugo Chavez and his buddies rejected conventional capitalism but made things more corrupt, Bhutan is an example of a nation that has prioritised other values and actually created a fairer, cleaner system.

What’s the border between Finland and Russia like?

Taking in the not-corrupt air of Parliament in Helsinki, Finland
This border, some 1300km (800 miles) long, must be a pretty interesting place. On one side you have Finland, one of those squeaky clean Scandinavian countries which ranks 3rd on the list. On the other side of the fence is Russia, that big bad bear that keeps sticking its nose into Ukraine, and ranks a lowly 136th on the list. Finland ranks even higher than places like Sweden and Switzerland, with the country placing a high priority on transparency in public services, police, judiciary, and political parties. The existence of such a contrast of corruption levels between neighbours suggests that countries can’t just blame their location on a map for their success or failure – stamping out corruption is the result of a concerted effort.

A gulf between them

Customs employees oversee baggage scanning in Dubai, UAE
Over in the Persian Gulf, countries like Qatar, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Bahrain have each made colossal amounts of money from their oil industries. It’s a pretty easy business, really – drill for oil, receive dollars. However, there are major contrasts within this neck of the woods (sands? Can sands have necks like woods can?) in terms of how corrupt the countries are. Iraq, with its turbulent history of wars, dictators, and religious rivalries, ranks 170th out of the 175 nations on the list. A little way further down the coast, the United Arab Emirates ranks 25th, and is home to some of the most spectacular modern engineering feats in the world.

So, what can we take from this?

Firstly, we need to introduce cross-country skiing into South Sudan as a means of reforming the public administration process. If it is concluded that there is insufficient local snow to achieve this, we’ll have to instead note the distinct link between corruption and human suffering. Countries with cleaner, more transparent systems are less prone to instability, violence, and human rights abuses. This creates an environment for investment, efficient business, and the smooth operation of governments. It means that people have faith in getting what they deserve, and that their efforts will be rewarded fairly. Pretty important stuff, when you think about it... the basic building blocks of a society that works.
While eliminating corruption is a vague, abstract concept which is hard to summarise in neat 30 second tv commercials, it’s just so important in terms of developing countries achieving their goals. Building schools and hospitals is one thing, but investments in governance and transparency are vital in a development budget. 
Michael Wilson