Regional analysis by Alejandro Salas
This year’s results of the Corruption Perceptions Index continue to show a high variance in public sector corruption across the Asia Pacific region. From top scorers like New Zealand and Singapore, to some of the worst scorers like Cambodia, North Korea and Afghanistan, more than half of the countries in the Asia Pacific score less than 50 on the index. In fact, on average, the region scores just 44. With a scale of 0 to 100, where 100 means very clean and 0 reflects a deep-rooted, systemic corruption problem, the Asia Pacific countries, on average, are failing. See CPI regional results here.
While no country in the Asia Pacific region scores a perfect 100, not even New Zealand or Singapore, which both experienced their share of scandals in the last year, our analysis reveals little progress across the region. In the last six years, only a few countries experienced small, incremental changes indicating signs of improvement.
For example, while Afghanistan rates very low on the index, its score increased by seven points in the last six years, moving from 8 in 2012 to 15 in 2016 and 2017. This may be attributed to some initial efforts nationwide to improve key policies, including better regulation of national procurement activities.
Similarly, Indonesia has a long way to go in the fight against corruption. However, it too climbed up the index, moving from 32 to 37 in the last five years, an overall increase of five points. This slight improvement could stem from the work of Indonesia’s leading anti-corruption agency in taking action against corrupt individuals, despite strong opposition from the government and parliament.
Stagnation in the region
Other countries, like South Korea, remain fairly stable in their scores over the last six years. South Korea experienced recent high-profile corruption scandals, which led to massive public protests and the swift impeachment and prosecution of the president.
Unfortunately, the results from the 2017 index also show that corruption in many countries is still strong. Often, when individuals dare to challenge the status quo, they suffer the consequences. In some countries across the region, journalists, activists, opposition leaders and even staff of law enforcement or watchdog agencies are threatened, and in the worst cases, even murdered.
Philippines, India and the Maldives are among the worst regional offenders in this respect. These countries score high for corruption and have fewer press freedoms and higher numbers of journalist deaths. In the last six years, 15 journalists working on corruption stories in these countries were murdered, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Just last year, Yameen Rasheed, an outspoken critic of the Maldives government was murdered for his efforts to uncover the truth about the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan.
While freedom of expression is under attack across much of the region, civic space is also shrinking severely. Civil society organisations in countries like Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and China are permanently under threat from authorities. In Cambodia, the government recently cracked down on civil society with the introduction of a restrictive law against NGOs. Cambodia is one of the worst-ranked countries in the region according to the CPI.
Call to action
This year’s results show slow and imperfect progress across the Asia Pacific region. Many countries face substantially different issues in their efforts to curb corruption. While corruption continues to be a rampant problem across the region, improvements will only be made if there is strong political will for change and if a comprehensive strategy is adopted, not one based on isolated actions. An effective strategy should include:
- Putting in place laws and institutions that will prevent corruption from happening in the first place. Legal frameworks and access to information are essential components of a healthy political system where citizens can play a role in demanding accountability and preventing corruption. Whistleblower protection mechanisms and autonomous, well-resourced anti-corruption agencies are also a must in the Asia Pacific region.
- Reducing impunity for the corrupt. Professional and independent justice systems are necessary where police and prosecutors can respond to technical criteria and not political power plays.
- Improving space for civil society to speak out. Governments should ensure that activists can speak freely throughout the region without fear of retaliation.
- Improving integrity and values. Schools and universities should educate youth about ethics and values. Corporations should promote business integrity in the private sector and make these ideals more mainstream.
Rather than focus solely on scores, rankings and methods, countries across the region should decide where to make substantial changes that will bring about real improvements in their countries. A comprehensive approach is necessary, otherwise in the coming year governments will continue to make only marginal improvements at best or deteriorations at worst.
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