Last week, I wrote about how individual and official corruption has pushed Nigeria to the brink of collapse. Despite being as dense with natural resources as a Whole Foods store built on top of an Exxon, roughly 80 percent of Nigerians live on less than $2 per day.
Rereading the column yesterday, I had a couple thoughts.
First, I thought, "Wow! If I managed the newspapers in which this column appeared, I'd double the columnist's pay! Retroactively!"
Second, I thought the concept of corruption could probably use a little more explaining.
The overwhelming majority of Americans don't experience corruption the way people in poorer countries do. By and large, we aren't hustled by cops for $100 bills when we get pulled over for speeding. The fire department doesn't demand tribute before extinguishing your house. And we don't have politicians in this country who rig our political and economic rules to help moneyed special interests. OK, scratch that last one.
Transparency International is a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization that tries to raise awareness of public corruption. Each year, it publishes a list called the Corruption Perceptions Index.
The key word is "perceptions." By its nature, corruption is hidden from view. Sudanese building inspectors and Hungarian border guards tend not to publish monthly spreadsheets detailing how much money they earned from bribes. The CPI therefore relies on information from experts within the countries it surveys.
The questions asked by Transparency International are broad. "Has the government implemented executive anticorruption initiatives?" "Are there adequate laws requiring financial disclosure and disallowing conflicts of interest?" "Do whistle-blowers, anti-corruption activists, investigators, and journalists enjoy legal protections that make them feel secure about reporting cases of bribery and corruption?"
Transparency International's website, Transparency.org, leads with a blue-shaded map of the world. The more corrupt a country, the darker the shade of blue it appears on the map. If I were a member of the Blue Man Group, I might be offended.
A quick eyeballing of the map confirms what you'd probably guess: Wealthier, democratic countries are less corrupt than poor, undemocratic nations.
The five least corrupt nations in the world, according to the survey, are New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland. What do these nations have in common? In addition to being wealthy and democratic, they're also small. In fact, none of the world's democratic economic giants (the U.S., Germany, Japan) ranks in the top 10 of least corrupt countries. Four of the five least corrupt also have Ikea stores. New Zealand doesn't have an Ikea, but it does have Flight of the Conchords, which more than makes up for it if you ask me.
And the most corrupt countries? They are Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and Iraq.
Notice anything interesting about the list? Four of the five have been invaded or bombed by the U.S. since 1998 as part of our supposed effort to thwart international Islamist terrorism. Sudan and Afghanistan were pummeled in 1998 by President Clinton, after that year's African Embassy bombings. And his successor, President Bush, initiated invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
Today, two of the five countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, have governments installed and kept in place by the U.S. military. In both countries, corruption is so rampant and insidious it results in mass killings.
Since August, Iraq's justice, foreign and finance ministries have been hit by deadly car bombings that have left nearly 300 dead and hundreds more injured. For a vehicle to get near any of those buildings, it must pass through multiple armed checkpoints. Iraqi officials believe the bombs got to their targets by simply bribing checkpoint guards.
It's also possible the checkpoints are unmanned. A leaked government report on Iraqi production says Iraq's security agencies are packed with "invisible" employees. Local officers exaggerate the number of men actually working for them, then pocket the extra paychecks.
Corruption in Afghanistan is even worse. When he's not stealing elections, President Hamid Karzai throws interference for his drug-dealing brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. International observers believe Wali Karzai is a key player in Afghanistan's opium and heroin trade. Afghanistan's drug trade also bankrolls the Taliban. While President Karzai benefits from our protection, his family is making bank funding the people killing U.S. troops.
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