With an average score of 43 for the fifth consecutive year, the Americas showcase corruption and the mismanagement of funds in one of the regions most affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Canada and Uruguay are consistently top performers, with scores of 77 and 71 respectively, while Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela are the worst performers, with scores of 22, 18 and 15 respectively.
COVID-19 corruption challenges
In a region already characterised by weak government institutions, COVID-19 has highlighted deep social and economic inequalities, with its disproportionate effects on vulnerable populations, including women, girls, indigenous groups, the elderly, migrants and Afro-Americans.
Similar to other regions around the world, governments in the Americas took extraordinary measures to fight COVID-19 in the form of various states of emergency that restricted civil rights. These restrictions curtailed freedoms of speech and assembly, weakened institutional checks and balances, and reduced space for civil society.
An alarming concentration of power in the executive branches in countries like Colombia (39) and El Salvador (36) has contributed to an explosion in irregularities and corruption cases associated with COVID-19 related procurement. Across the region, citizens struggle to access reliable and up-to-date information on health statistics and emergency procurement.
A major challenge facing the region is ensuring that funds and programmes for COVID-19 relief are not lost to corruption and reach the intended recipients. Failure to deliver this aid risks increased social discontent, stokes harmful populism, and creates still greater poverty and inequality.
Governments must also guarantee that the development, purchase and distribution of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines are transparent and equitable. It is crucial that governments permit civil society organisations and the press to function as watchdogs, holding politicians and businesses to account. Too often, governments look to use such crises for political advantage at the expense of civil society.
Countries that stagnate
With a score of 36, El Salvador, has stagnated on the CPI for the past 8 years, but recently, the country suffered a serious setback when an important law to provide access to information was suspended due to the pandemic.
Only by using this same law could civil society groups monitor government funds for COVID-19-related purchases to ensure the money was well-spent. Unfortunately, the national state of emergency allowed for less transparent and riskier contracting processes, resulting in some startling irregularities.
One of the most serious corruption cases in El Salvador was a contract between the government and a Spanish auto parts company worth US$12 million to acquire overpriced medical supplies. As in neighbouring countries, El Salvador has unclear criteria for choosing beneficiaries used in the delivery of emergency cash transfers vouchers.
Many commodity- and tourism-dependent small island countries in the Caribbean were hit hard by the economic repercussions of COVID-19. In addition, these countries face poor funding for medical emergencies as their governments struggle with already limited resources.
Jamaica (44), Trinidad and Tobago (40), and the Dominican Republic (28) all showed little improvement on the CPI. In 2020, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago returned two ruling parties to power, but the election of a new government in the Dominican Republic raised hopes for the fight against corruption.
With a score of 25, Guatemala is a significant decliner on the CPI, dropping 8 points since 2012. Congress threatened the right to information with reforms that pose a serious setback to citizen oversight and create a risk of politicisation. In response, citizens demonstrated against budget cuts to education and health, and the secretive way these cuts were negotiated and passed.
Two decades of extensive corruption are a major driver of the current humanitarian crisis in Venezuela (15), a significant decliner on the CPI, dropping five points since 2013.
The COVID-19 pandemic deepened shortages of medicines, medical supplies and essential equipment and deteriorated hospital infrastructure. Over the last two decades, the country lost at least US$5 billion to corruption in the health sector, threatening the health and lives of millions of Venezuelans.
With a score of 39, Ecuador is a significant improver on the CPI, jumping 7 points since 2012. Key judicial decisions include the sentencing of former President Rafael Correa, former Vice President Jorge Glas, and 18 other people for accepting nearly US$15 million in bribes in exchange for public contracts to fund electoral campaigns between 2012 and 2016.
Despite these milestones, corruption took centre stage during the COVID-19 crisis, with 141 ongoing investigations of corrupt contracts, embezzlement, and inflated pricing of medical supplies like face masks and body bags. Moving forward, proper enforcement of the National Assembly's recently approved anti-corruption law would allow for improved public procurement procedures and limit abuses.
Countries to watch
With a score of 38, Peru improves two points, but remains relatively stagnant on the index since 2012. Investigations of corruption cases and the recent approval of crucial anti-corruption laws offer some improvements.
Specifically, two laws provide hope. One prevents people found guilty of corruption from applying to public positions or being designated to positions of trust. The second improves transparency, accountability and integrity in political financing.
The presidential elections scheduled for April 2021 present an opportunity to end impunity and hold power to account in Peru, where social discontent with corruption, COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis remains high. Investigations of high-level political leaders and prominent businesspeople should be brought to trial and sentences confirmed as appropriate, to maintain public trust.
With a score of 24, Honduras declines by two points to reach a new low on the CPI. In the last year, Honduras was devastated by both COVID-19 and the 2020 hurricane season, and continues to suffer from high levels of poverty and inequality.
Weak institutions contribute to a lack of disaster preparedness and a uniform economy creates an overdependence on agriculture and natural resources for income.
The status of anti-corruption efforts is similarly grim. The country lost millions to corruption in the last decade and experienced significant setbacks in the fight against impunity with the termination of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) run by the Organization of American States. Congress also approved a series of laws that promote corruption and hinder investigations.
Reports reveal an alarming lack of planning in the country’s COVID-19 related purchases, overpricing of medical equipment and opaque contractual arrangements in the procurement process for field hospitals.
With a score of 67, the US reaches its lowest score on the CPI since 2012. The Administration's attack on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the US anti-bribery law that serves as a global gold standard, attacks on whistleblowers, the challenge to oversight of pandemic relief funding and efforts to promote false claims of widespread voter fraud to undermine a free and fair Presidential election are all troubling trends.
Specifically, the firing of Inspectors General for identifying corruption and fraud in government operations and the President’s personal intervention to pressure election officials and incite violence in order to change certified vote counts in his favour are among the most serious departures from ethical democratic practice.
The end of the year adoption by Congress of a landmark anti-money laundering law and the early positive signals from a new Administration are promising developments but the ongoing highly charged partisan divisions in the US make it a country to watch.
- El Salvador
- United States
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- Trinidad and Tobago
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