Foreign Policy Blogs

In Case You Missed It: Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index

A visual representation of the results of Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (author's screenshot from the TI website).

A visual representation of the results of Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (author’s screenshot from the TI website).

How corrupt is your government? This week, Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, a measure of “perceived levels of public sector corruption in countries worldwide.” Some results are simply unsurprising: out of 176 countries, war-torn Afghanistan and Somalia, and opaque, impoverished North Korea share the bottom spot. Meanwhile, Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand, often lauded for good governance, share the top spot.

As its name suggests, the Index takes into perceptions of corruption, but is not a measure of corruption itself, a detail I find is often forgotten in discussions of the Index. Nevertheless, when it comes to a government’s legitimacy and effectiveness, perceptions are of course an important part of the equation, and arguably, perceptions (more than quantitative measures) play a disproportionate role in determining elections, driving revolutions, and more.

How are some of the world’s newest democracies doing? While some analysts are disappointed with the general lack of progress among Arab Spring countries in reducing perceived corruption, we need to give these countries more time.  As the fury in Egypt over executive power and the new constitution suggests, citizens of that country care deeply about building an accountable government that is responsive to their demands. Democratic transition does not take place overnight, however. While it’s possible to imagine ways in which the Egyptian democratic transition could be going more smoothly, it is impossible to evaluate Egypt’s progress on corruption in the same way that one could evaluate most countries – the current Egyptian government has been in power for less than a year.

As newspapers around the world discuss their own countries’ rankings, I was eager to see how the United States measures up. The U.S.—an active promoter of good governance initiatives overseas—is ranked 19th, meaning that Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Iceland, Luxembourg, Germany, Hong Kong, Barbados, Belgium, Japan, and the United Kingdom are all doing better than this country. While comparing this year’s results to previous years’ is not straightforward because of the way that Transparency has changed some of its methodology and reporting, the significance of this ranking is unignorable.

I predict that in 2013, the commentariat and politicians here in the U.S. will continue to talk about so-called U.S. decline in comparison to China, the state of U.S. infrastructure, U.S. rankings in education, and more. I hope that talk of “nation building at home” and “restoration” also includes discussion of the Corruption Perceptions Index – why the U.S. is at number nineteen, and how it can begin moving up the rankings.

Note: For another take on corruption and the Index, check out this post by FPA’s Scott Firsing.

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  • I think that with the whole prospect of “nation building” and “restoration,” the US will naturally become more of a “transparent” and less corrupt state. What I think is more alarming than the US’s 19th ranking is the amount of corruption present in the rest of the world. In the US, we always hear about how much corruption is here at home–who you vote for is going to affect your political career, the dark side of politics, the increasingly non-partisan legislation. But what we fail to recognize is that a solid majority of these states from all around the world are in a much worse position than the US and the people behind all of these numbers. When you imagine all of the people who have been hurt by corruption in the US, you can easily multiply that when you consider all the people who have been hurt by corruption throughout the world. It’s a very sad humanitarian tale and I think that before we can start complaining about our own situation, we have to realize the humanitarian concern behind all of these numbers and rankings.


Julia Knight
Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.