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9 countries to watch on the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index

Troubling signs and key opportunities that can make – or break – the fight against corruption

Photo collage showing protesters, binoculars and scales symbolising justice, in background grey-scale CPI map

Illustration by Transparency International

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Transparency Int'l

Over the past decade, frustration about corruption has dominated electoral campaigns, toppled governments and inspired people to take to the streets in their thousands.

And while the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) paints a grim global picture of the state of public sector corruption, it also shows that 25 countries have made demonstrable improvements in recent years. Many of these wins belong not only to government reformers, but also to the dedicated individuals and communities from across all parts of society who have sparked change.

But progress against corruption cannot be taken for granted – especially not when human rights and democracy are under attack. In the last year alone, high-level corruption scandals, fresh allegations of misused COVID-19 funds, and deliberate efforts to weaken institutional and societal checks on power show that vigilance is needed across the board.

Transparency International’s analysis reveals that in 2022 our societies will need to be on particularly high alert in nine countries.

A blue and red map of the world on a black background with puppets waving bank notes in different areas of the world

What is a ‘country to watch’ on the CPI?

In this annual watch-list published alongside the CPI, Transparency International flags countries that need closer monitoring and attention in the coming year.

Some are countries where significant developments may have not yet been reflected in their CPI scores. For example, following violent crackdowns against protestors and increased repression, we flagged Belarus as a country to watch last year. Belarus had been gradually improving on the Index – until it dropped 6 points this year.

Other countries highlighted include those with new opportunities to advance the fight against public sector corruption. For example, following the peaceful Velvet Revolution which brought to power a reform-minded government, Transparency International listed Armenia as a country to watch on the 2018 CPI. Since then, the country has risen 14 points, marking a significant improvement.

1. Australia

Australia (CPI score: 73) is one of the world’s most significant decliners, having dropped 12 points since 2012 to hit a record low this year. Its deteriorating score indicates systemic failings in tackling public sector corruption. Despite public calls and previous promises, last year Australia missed a landmark opportunity to establish a national anti-corruption agency with broad powers to investigate corruption.

And like many other top-scoring countries on the CPI, Australia needs to do much more to end its complicity in transnational corruption, which is not measured by the Index.

The Pandora Papers investigations in 2021 showed that, thanks to persistent opacity in real estate ownership, Australia’s property market is an easy target for corrupt individuals from abroad.

Enforcement remains weak against companies paying bribes to secure contracts abroad. This shortcoming creates major corruption risks in other Pacific countries too. Many businesses working in the Pacific, particularly in the extractives sector, are registered in Australia – a sector which most people surveyed by the 2021 Global Corruption Barometer believe is tainted with corruption.

As Australia heads into a federal election, anti-corruption commitments – and a firm resolution to follow through on them – will matter more than ever. The establishment of a strong anti-corruption commission, which is long overdue, should be a top priority.

2. Austria

With a score of 74, Austria is at risk of losing ground at the top of the Index. After some years of progress, the country’s slow decline – while not yet statistically significant – sends a warning signal to established democracies about the dangers of neglecting anti-corruption efforts.

The government has delayed implementing the national anti-corruption strategy under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, while politicians have attacked the judiciary and investigative authorities.

In 2021, now-former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz became the target of two inquiries. In May, anti-corruption prosecutors started to investigate whether Kurz lied about a 2019 Ibiza corruption case when testifying to a parliamentary commission. In October, a separate corruption investigation was opened to examine allegations that he misused public funds during his time as foreign minister in 2016.

The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption has also noted Austria’s lack of anti-corruption efforts and recently found that government had satisfactorily dealt with only two of its 17 recommendations made in 2017. As investigations continue into Kurz and his allies, the new chancellor must rebuild trust in the government and drive forward the country’s neglected anti-corruption strategy.

3. El Salvador

In 2022, El Salvador (34) could establish itself as a dictatorship if authorities there continue to undermine democracy, harass critics and restrict civil and political rights.

The country has increasingly restricted access to information and shown a severe lack of transparency in the spending of public funds. Senior government officials are alleged to have engaged in multi-million dollar corruption schemes in their management of the COVID-19 crisis and as part of local elections.

Last year, several officials from both the current and previous governments were included in the so-called Engel List released by the United States government over accusations of corruption and assaults on democracy in El Salvador.

There is also concern over steps taken by the government to weaken the independence of justice institutions and close down civic space. In 2021, the newly elected Legislative Assembly dismissed and replaced all five judges of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General without due process, while publicly attacking and promoting laws that threaten civil society organisations, human rights defenders, and independent media.

4. Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan (37) was rocked by civil unrest at the start of 2022. What started as a protest over a spike in fuel price quickly turned into countrywide demonstrations over corruption and inequality. The wealth that the country’s political elite allegedly amassed through corruption was a particular concern during protests.

In 2021, the Pandora Papers investigation included reports that a woman with close ties to former president Nursultan Nazarbayev received a suspicious payment of US$30 million from shell companies that journalists have linked to two Kazakh oligarchs. Prior to that, a 2019 investigation uncovered offshore properties – reportedly worth US$785 million – that allegedly belong to Nazarbayev’s relatives. These disclosures were ignored by authorities, even as they pursued several other high-profile corruption cases. However, convicted senior officials have usually been pardoned or released early.

Reporting directly to the president, the Anti-Corruption Agency of Kazakhstan has focused on sectors like agriculture and healthcare. The largest industries – including oil and gas, finance and construction – remain beyond its attention, as guided by the 2022-2026 draft anti-corruption policy.

The tragic 5 January events that ensued in Almaty underscore the dangers of ignoring corruption in priority areas, but Kazakhstan has an opportunity to turn the tide. So that policies and decisions benefit the common good – not just a privileged few – the way forward should also include meaningful opportunities for civil society participation.

5. Lebanon

In Lebanon (24), high levels of political corruption have caused multiple crises, including the disastrous explosion in the capital’s port in 2020. Even before this tragedy, continuous protests since October 2019 were calling for systemic reforms. In the wake of the Beirut blast, Lebanon sunk into economic collapse and political instability, going without a government for a 13-month period. Widespread protests by Lebanese citizens against political corruption and the economic meltdown were met with persecution and harsh suppression of basic rights by the authorities, even as politicians failed to address the unfolding crises. Unsurprisingly, Lebanon has declined on the CPI, dropping 6 points (from 30) since 2012.

Several laws passed in the last two years are nowhere near being enforced. Lebanon also has major deficiencies in public procurement processes and financial transparency. In June 2021, attempting to restore confidence in the government after the Beirut blast, the parliament adopted a new public procurement law. It has disturbing loopholes that allow important information, conflicts of interests and company owners to remain hidden, among other gaps such as not accounting for the role of civil society organisations.

Of all the offshore companies revealed in the Pandora Papers leaks, Lebanese politicians and businesspeople owned the greatest number of them – a whopping 346 companies. Although the leaks named several public and politically exposed figures, no investigation has been undertaken by the Lebanese authorities.

6. Mozambique

Although not statistically significant, Mozambique (26) has dropped 5 points (from 31) on the CPI since 2012. The country is still grappling with the fallout of the “hidden debt” corruption scandal, exposed in 2016. In this scheme, senior officials in Mozambique reportedly conspired with bankers in Europe and business people based in the Middle East to arrange a US$2 billion loan to the country. These funds were then allegedly misappropriated, including through bribes and kickbacks.

The ensuing financial crisis has meant that the Mozambican state is unable to fulfil its obligations, including protecting the rights of people displaced by the Cabo Delgado conflict. Individuals accused of orchestrating the hidden debt scheme went on trial in late 2021.

The scandal and its aftermath exemplify the dangers of executive overreach and a lack of effective checks and balances – weak parliamentary oversight, in particular. The ongoing high-profile case offers hope, but also serves as an accountability test. What happens next should be closely watched.

7. Russia

In Russia (29), the “foreign agent law” has made reporting on corruption even more dangerous. Authorities raided the homes and offices of journalists and activists investigating government corruption and declared them “foreign agents” subject to burdensome financial reporting and publishing constraints.

The Russian authorities sent another clear signal to critics when they jailed opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny upon his return from Germany, where he was recovering from nerve agent poisoning. At the same time, Navalny’s team released a bombshell investigation into a secret luxury estate on the Black Sea coast, allegedly owned by President Putin’s inner circle.

Authorities used the pandemic as a pretext to ban all mass gatherings and apply restrictions to so-called “single pickets”, or one-person protests. Corruption and abuse also disproportionally affects people already facing discrimination, such as LGBTQIA+ communities.

This dire situation was brought to worldwide attention when the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent paper Novaya Gazeta, and Filipino investigative journalist Maria Ressa, "for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace." During Muratov's time at the Novaya Gazeta, six of its journalists have been murdered.

8. Senegal

From 2012 to 2016, Senegal’s performance on the CPI significantly improved (from 36 to 43). Advancements during this period include the creation of the Office for the Fight against Fraud and Corruption (OFNAC) and passage of the asset declaration law, among other reforms. But progress halted there, with Senegal’s 2021 score dropping 2 points compared to last year.

In 2020, a national anti-corruption strategy was adopted, but its prospects are unclear, as resourcing and implementation remain a challenge. In recent years, the work of anti-corruption institutions – such as OFNAC – has lacked rigour, and numerous denunciations by the public about mismanagement of public funds and natural resources have not been adequately investigated.

Patchy enforcement of anti-corruption legislation is also a major concern. Freedom House recently downgraded Senegal’s rating from “free” to “partly free”, citing politically motivated corruption prosecutions of opposition leaders.

In 2019, previously unknown details surfaced surrounding the 2012 sale of concession rights for two offshore oil blocks, implicating President Macky Sall and his brother Aliou Sall in possible foreign bribery. In response to public pressure, Aliou Sall resigned from public office, but rejected claims that he received secret payments. Eventually, an investigation into his role was dismissed. Last year, Transparency International filed complaints in six countries that have jurisdiction over the case.

9. Slovenia

With a score of 57, Slovenia has reached a historical low. Following the establishment of a relatively solid anti-corruption framework, the government has not enforced existing rules to uphold transparency and integrity in public procurement during the pandemic.

Simultaneously, there has been pressure on independent oversight bodies, threats to freedom of peaceful assembly and disproportionate limitations on the right to protest – recently intensified through a lawsuit against an organiser of anti-government protests. The Slovenian government has engaged in a smear campaign against the country’s public media outlets and restricted payments to the Slovenian Press Agency, bringing it to the brink of collapse. Most recently, the announcement of fundamental changes in the news and political programming of public broadcaster TV Slovenia has raised concerns among journalists and the public about political influence on management.

As Slovenia enters a super election year, clear anti-corruption commitments are needed from across the political spectrum. To prevent further losses on the CPI and to address public distrust in the government, Slovenia needs to embed citizen participation and consultation into all levels of decision-making, transpose the EU whistleblowing directive in line with civil society recommendations and international best practice, strengthen its independent ethics and oversight bodies and update its Resolution on the Prevention of Corruption.

Illustration of money flows from a low-income country with high levels of corruption to an advanced economy

What are other global highlights?

The 2021 CPI shows that corruption levels remain at a standstill worldwide, with 86 per cent of countries making little to no progress in the last 10 years. Two-thirds of countries score below 50, indicating that they have serious corruption problems, while 27 countries are at their lowest score ever.

Countries that have historically performed well on the Index are stagnating or backsliding. What’s worse, they continue to perpetuate transnational corruption – which is enabling human rights violations around the world.