Despite a series of high profile corruption cases around the Asia-Pacific, countries in the region must focus on systemic change if they are to rid themselves of deeply entrenched corruption, Alejandro Salas writes.
The newest edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI-2017) by Transparency International shows a high corruption burden in more than two-thirds of countries around the world. The results for the Asia-Pacific are mixed – more than half of the countries score less than 50 on a scale from 100 (very clean) to 0 (reflecting a deep-rooted systemic problem).
From the top scorers like New Zealand, Singapore and Australia, which have had their share of recent scandals, with Australia sliding down from 85 in 2012 to 77 in the latest edition, to the bottom of the ranks occupied by Cambodia, North Korea and Afghanistan, the pervasiveness of corruption is evident.
It is important to acknowledge that many countries are taking positive action. Japan recently became a party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption. In the Pacific, Papua New Guinea is advancing discussions for setting up an independent commission against corruption.
In South Asia, Pakistan recently approved freedom of information and whistle-blower protection laws in several states, and so did Sri Lanka at the national level with an ambitious and ground-breaking freedom of information bill. These are just some examples which illustrate that legal and institutional infrastructure to prevent and fight corruption is moving forward.
A quick glance around the region’s media headlines strengthens the impression that the fight against corruption is gaining momentum, with a growing number of corruption-related arrests and prosecutions of high-level individuals making headlines.
China has been fighting corruption for some time now, registering hundreds of arrests and prosecutions, including some powerful members of the Communist Party as part of the campaign to crack down on “tigers and flies”. Southeast Asia is also seeing countries boost their efforts, particularly in Vietnam, but also to varying degrees in the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia and others.
Farther East, South Korea experienced recent high profile corruption scandals, which led to massive public protests and the swift impeachment and prosecution of its President, Park Geun-hye.
This is all welcome news. However individual actions, as spectacular as they might be, are not enough. A problem like corruption, which is complex in nature and is deeply entrenched in the political, cultural, economic and value systems of countries, needs long-term political will, commitment and honest participation from various sectors.
It is in these aspects where many of the countries in the region fail. India is a good example of why its score in the CPI is stagnating: lots of rhetorical action, with little or no impact.
Transparency International has long stressed that there is not a simple or single solution to the issue of corruption – arresting a few individuals or approving new laws will not be enough to eradicate the problem. How can anti-corruption work take root if activists and journalists are constantly under threat, if political interests capture anti-corruption agencies, or if arrests are highly selective?
The 2017 CPI results show that corruption in many countries is resilient. 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 being threatened, and in the worst cases, murdered.
The Philippines, India and the Maldives are among the worst regional offenders in this respect. These countries score high for corruption and experience lower levels of press freedom 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.
How fast things can improve will depend on the actions governments choose to take now. Bribery, the diversion of public funds, the use of public office for electoral purposes, bloated bureaucracies, preferential treatment for friends and family members, ineffective prosecution for corrupt officials, and many other systemic problems will keep CPI scores down if not addressed in a holistic, long-term and honest way.
To this end, Transparency International in the Asia-Pacific region promotes a strategy that puts citizens and their legitimate demand for accountability at the centre. The improvement and enforcement of legal instruments, stronger institutions, ending the impunity of corrupt officials, and integrity from the business community, are the pillars for a comprehensive approach.
Only those countries that understand and act upon this will see their scores improve in future editions of the CPI.