With an average score of 39 for the third consecutive year, the Middle East and North Africa region is still perceived as highly corrupt, with little progress made towards controlling corruption.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the top regional performers on the CPI with scores of 71 and 63, respectively, while Libya (17), Yemen (15) and Syria (14) are among the worst performers.
COVID-19 corruption challenges
Across the region, years of corruption left countries woefully unprepared to face the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals and health centres lacked the resources and organisation necessary to respond effectively to the first wave of cases. Public hospitals were undersupplied and understaffed, with many health care providers becoming gravely ill.
Trust in the public sector also plummeted when it became clear that there were no good crisis management protocols in place, and that public administrations were too depleted to re-organise quickly and efficiently.
Examples from Jordan and Yemen
COVID-19 exposed procurement challenges in countries like Jordan (49), where restrictive emergency and defence laws limited free speech and prevented whistleblowers from speaking out against corruption.
With a score of 15, Yemen dropped eight points since 2012. An ongoing armed conflict and war economy pose major challenges to countering corruption in the country. In addition, COVID-19 relief was mismanaged, with little transparency in the distribution of vast amounts of financial and humanitarian aid, resulting in some of those communities hit hardest by the pandemic being among the last to receive much-needed assistance.
Private sector corruption
Despite above average CPI scores of some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an inter-governmental body that consists of six countries in the region, corruption continues to be a significant issue.
While the CPI measures public sector corruption, countries like UAE (70) often perpetuate corruption elsewhere because of how their private sector is regulated.
In fact, multiple investigative reports show that UAE is a key piece in the global money laundering puzzle and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has criticised Emirati authorities for their lack of action.
While the UAE and other GCC countries have resources to combat COVID-19 and invest in health care, the ongoing lack of transparency in decision-making leads to other forms of corruption in the region.
Despite small gains by civil society in the last decade towards building stronger, more sustainable laws to combat corruption and promote transparency, the COVID-19 crisis and resulting emergency measures essentially cancelled these efforts, setting the region back by years.
Political corruption also remains a challenge across the region. In Iraq (21), corruption enshrined in the system deprives people of their basic rights, including access to safe drinking water, health care, uninterrupted electricity, employment opportunities and an adequate infrastructure.
Moving forward, some of the biggest challenges in the region, particularly during the COVID-19 recovery, are issues of transparency and equitable access to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
Countries to watch
With a score of 25, Lebanon significantly declined on the CPI, dropping five points since 2012. Despite massive protests against corruption and poverty in October 2019, no major corruption investigations have started, nor have any public officials been put on trial.
COVID-19 nearly paralysed the government. In addition, the investigations of the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion are ongoing. While some senior officials have been charged in connection to the blast, accountability remains limited.
The courts still lack independence, notwithstanding new laws from Parliament to strengthen the judiciary and address issues of asset recovery. Additionally, despite the recent adoption of a law to create a National Anti-Corruption Commission, this specialised body has yet to be established.
However, there are causes for hope, including Parliament’s recent adoption of a law to help address issues of dirty money, a long-awaited bill to improve access to information and the recent adoption of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy. These developments present important opportunities to promote anti-corruption.
In Lebanon, the COVID-19 pandemic and Beirut blast present major challenges to the country’s anti-corruption efforts. (Image: Shutterstock / Hiba Al Kallas)
With a score of 40, Morocco drops one point on the CPI since last year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the country imposed a state of emergency that led to restriction of movement and the closure of national borders.
While the government took exceptional measures in response to the health emergency, particularly around public procurement, these measures lacked oversight and allowed special exemptions for which the government has not been held to account. These initiatives extend to areas beyond health care and pose significant risks for mismanaged funds and corruption.
There have also been numerous violations of free speech and press, including the arrest and imprisonment of journalists who criticise public authorities, investigate cases of corruption or highlight a lack of government transparency.
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