Corruption and economic turmoil often go hand-in-hand. In western nations like the United States and many European countries, we often see corruption come to light as the result of whistleblowers or journalistic efforts. But in many other areas of the world, however, corruption plays a major role in fostering staggering poverty and broken economic systems in a much more blatant way.
Oftentimes, specific power structures and government architectures provide an easier means for corrupt politicians, businessmen, or military officials to exploit the system. Many governments have their roots in constitutions from generations ago, and have outgrown their current systems. Many other countries are ruled by a variety of independent tribal leaders and often lack a centralized power structure with any meaningful sway.
Transparency International developed a comprehensive list of the world’s most corrupt nations last year, and the countries that top the list probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many. The study ranks countries on a scale from 0 to 100, with zero being the most corrupt, and 100 being the least.
Of course, corruption comes in a variety of forms, so getting a precise gauge is difficult. But perception itself is a very strong tool, and can have a big effect on its own. If the study reveals anything, it’s that the world overall has a huge issue in terms of corrupt officials. By looking at the Corruptions Perception Index, along with the existing power structures and economic systems within each country, the picture does become a bit clearer. That’s why we dug a little deeper, examining the rankings for ourselves.
Although not among the top ten, we’ve included the United States on the list to give perspective as to where America ranks internationally in terms of corruption and economic strife. By Transparency International’s calculations and scale, the U.S. is sitting fairly pretty, although it’s common knowledge that there are definitely issues with how things are run in Washington. Other countries you might expect to see like Russia, Mexico, or Venezuela all have their places as well, and the full list of 177 nations can be viewed straight at the source from Transparency International.
Here are the most corrupt nations in the world, as ranked by Transparency International, with additional insight into the issues and factors plaguing each one.
- Corruption score: 18
- Power structure: Single-Party Presidential Democracy
Eritrea is a new entrant onto the list this year, having vaulted from number 25 to number 10 in 2014. Many people may have never even heard of Eritrea, let alone be aware of the corruption issues the country faces. Eritrea is located in Africa, bordering the Red Sea directly across from Saudi Arabia, bordering Djibouti to the south and Sudan to the north. Eritrea is a small and relatively poor country, with a GDP of only $3.44 billion, and a population of 6.3 million.
The situation in Eritrea is clearly in flux. After years of relative self-imposed isolation, Eritrea has begun opening its borders to foreign business and investment, along with privatizing state-owned assets. That has allowed for some government officials, and others in power, to take advantage of their positions for personal profit. With undeveloped legal, economic, and political framework, the country has had a lot of trouble finding a stable foothold in the international community.
Until Eritrea can sort out its internal problems, it’s likely that the country’s numerous issues will continue. Due to rule by a single party — despite being a democracy — a suitable minority party that can successfully challenge for power is likely what is needed. The economy is expected to continue to stagnate, and the prospect of war in the region spilling over into the country’s borders are also concerns for foreign investors.
- Corruption score: 18
- Power structure: Transitional
Few nations have experienced as much turmoil over the past few years as Libya. The country’s government saw its downfall during a mass uprising and protest, which ultimately led to protestors parading around with the body of former president Muammar Gaddafi on the streets. The country’s fall was a part of the ‘Arab Spring’, which also saw mass protests in Syria, Egypt and Bahrain, among others.
Now, Libya is still embroiled in turmoil. No formal government has taken root, and fighting between rebels and those loyal to the old administration is still taking place. Due to the high levels of uncertainty, the country’s GDP contracted 9.4 percent during 2013, according to The World Bank. The power vacuum has left open a great opportunity for arms dealers and corrupt military higher-ups to take charge and make profits by pitting citizens against each other.
Libya currently operates under a transitional government, and both its administrative and judicial systems are vulnerable to a wide variety of outside interference. It’s economy is almost entirely based on energy, which supplies 95 percent of export earnings and 80 percent of the nation’s GDP, per the CIA. Until a new, permanent government can be established, Libya will most likely remain a hotbed of political and economic instability.
- Corruption score: 18
- Power structure: Republic
One of the lesser-traveled nations in the world, Uzbekistan finds itself as one of the world’s messiest countries. From an economic standpoint, things appear to be going alright with 8% growth in GDP during 2013. In fact, information from The World Bank indicates the economy of Uzbekistan has remained more or less the same through the financial crisis which has crippled systems in Europe and North America.
The nation’s government is set up as a republic with an authoritative presidential figure in Islam Karimov. The vast majority of the country’s power resides within the executive branch, making it ripe for corruption. Karimov has been president since Uzbekistan actually became a country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, winning three straight terms of between five and seven years. Like many other Middle-Eastern authority figures, he has apparently not grown tired of ruling the country.
Much of the Uzbek economy relies on agriculture for subsistence, as the entire country is landlocked and experiences a very dry climate. Many multinational corporations have experienced run-ins with the country’s government, having been accused of not following local laws and customs. That hasn’t stopped the administration from trying to attract more business, however, through tax incentives and sometimes even bribery.
- Corruption score: 17
- Power structure: Presidential Democracy/Authoritarian
Turkmenistan resides in a dangerous neighborhood, to say the least. Bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the north, the country lies in a virtual hotbed of corrupt states. With the constant turmoil all over the Middle East, it’s been very easy for the country to fall into corrupt affairs, especially concentrated at the top from the authoritarian presidential figure, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
The CIA’s file says that Turkmenistan likes to describe itself as a secular democracy and presidential republic, while in practice, its government more closely resembles an authoritarian dictatorship. The country itself was founded as a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, as so many others in the region, and the resulting power struggle has left the nation highly corrupt and vulnerable to tomfoolery.
Also like many other countries in its region, Turkmenistan’s economy is largely based on agriculture and energy. The country is fortunate to have vast reserves of crude oil and natural gas to supplement the economy, although they are controlled by the government. Misuse of the state’s revenues have driven many investors away and led to high levels of corruption.
- Corruption score: 16
- Power structure: Federal Parliamentary Constitutional Republic (ostensibly)
Many people may be surprised that Iraq isn’t higher on the list of the world’s most corrupt countries, but its certainly up there. It’s no secret the current state of affairs in Iraq is a total mess. After the second American invasion in 15 years, the pullout of U.S. forces has left Iraq a virtual power vacuum, with several different sects fighting for power over the embattled nation. Fighting is mostly concentrated between the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis, but the arrival of ISIS from Syria has added additional issues.
The CIA lists Iraq’s government as a parliamentary democracy, but the legitimacy of the government is definitely up for debate. And there’s definitely little debate as to whether or not corruption has taken hold in the country, as Iraq’s vast wealth and natural resources have made it a target for all kinds of industry and war profiteers.
Iraq has actually seen some economic growth as the country rebuilds itself, but there is also a lot of outside interference from American and European contracting companies, hired to rebuild infrastructure and tap into the country’s oil reserves. The future of Iraq is probably as uncertain as any country in the world. It’s very possible that the nation will dissolve and turn into three distinct countries, as it was before Europeans entered the fray in the early 20th century. As for now, incredible instability — along with the arrival of ISIL (or ISIS) from the north — will keep the country in a state of flux.
5. South Sudan
- Corruption score: 15
- Power structure: Republic
One of the world’s youngest countries, South Sudan officially declared independence in 2011, following long-standing conflicts with its parent country, Sudan, which gained its independence in 1956. Between the mid-1950s and now, conflicts in the region have resulted in the deaths of as many as 2.5 million people, or so the CIA contends. South Sudan now stands as an independent republic, composed of 10 states.
A nation still in its infancy, South Sudan does not have the traditional long-standing government structures in place that many others do. This has led to ripe opportunities for corrupt politicians to step in, and as a result, the country has remained mostly undeveloped, and its citizens participate in a largely subsistence-based economic system. One other issue is the lack of a sense of nationhood among the 200 or so ethnic groups occupying the country.
According to The World Bank, the vast majority of South Sudan’s GDP — around 80% — is derived from oil exports. This has been a major problem, as international oil companies have been able to take advantage of the nation’s weak governmental structures and regulatory policies, turning huge profits at the expense of the citizens. In fact, 85% of the country’s workforce is engaged in non-paid labor. More than half live below the poverty line as well.
- Corruption score: 12
- Power structure: Islamic Republic
Afghanistan has an incredibly difficult history to try and condense. The area has been inhabited for a very long time — and its geographic location has also put it in the middle of many conflicts over hundreds, if not thousands of years. There’s a reason the country has been stuck with the nickname ‘the graveyard of empires’, as it is incredibly difficult to not only conquer, but to keep under control.
The country has been loosely held together by a central government that largely lacks power, and has been carved up by a myriad of local tribal leaders and warlords, as we’ve seen first-hand with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The country’s now-former president Hamid Karzai was notoriously corrupt — he’s been recently busted for taking bagfuls of money from the American military, among other things. Afghanistan is also home to an enormous amount of the world’s heroin production, which has brought lots of wealth to a lucky few.
The country’s economy has remained in a state of flux for some time now, although the fall of the Taliban has helped — as has a flood of international aid. But it still faces major issues going forward. As the CIA puts it, “Criminality, insecurity, weak governance, lack of infrastructure, and the Afghan Government’s difficulty in extending rule of law to all parts of the country pose challenges to future economic growth.”
- Corruption score: 11
- Power structure: Federal Republic
One country that has been wrapped thoroughly in the grasp of war for many years is the African nation of Sudan. Long-standing conflicts between competing factions and ethnic groups have destabilized the country’s ability to efficiently operate from an economic standpoint, and the result has been devastating to many of the country’s citizens. South Sudan has also recently broken-off from the rest of the country, taking with it vast oil reserves. CNN reports that Sudan’s GDP was expected to contract by a fair amount due to South Sudan’s departure.
The country’s government is listed as a federal republic, which is ruled by the National Congress Party, according to the CIA. The NCP came to power after a coup d’etat in 1989, and has not been able to successfully repair the nation’s issues. As a result of the prolonged instability, Sudan’s GDP has tanked since spiking in 2006, much of which has to do with the situation in South Sudan.
64.5% of Sudan’s citizens live under the poverty line, by The World Bank’s calculations. The nation’s GDP stands at $66.55 billion as well. Both of these statistics would likely see improvement if not for some of the draconian and growth-inhibiting policies of the NCP. Also, if Sudan can find a way to rid itself of some of its corrupt officials, many violent conflicts could possibly see resolution as well.
Tie – 1. North Korea
- Corruption score: 8
- Power structure: Dictatorship
The world’s biggest wildcard is North Korea. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the country is immensely corrupt, having been effectively run into the ground over the past half-century by Kim Jong Sun, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jung Un, all of whom the country’s citizens affectionately have referred to as ‘Supreme Leader’. The CIA lists North Korea’s government as a ‘communist state one-man dictatorship’, with an estimated GDP of $28 billion as of 2009.
Notorious for having very little electricity and sending its citizens to prison camps, North Korea’s government and economy are effectively shrouded in mystery. While it does receive aid from countries like China, North Korea obviously has had problems producing enough fuel and food to properly care for its citizens. Military spending far outweighs spending on social programs and aid, mostly to put on appearances for the rest of the world in their famous outbursts of saber-rattling, and to keep citizens in line.
The country’s major issues can be traced back to a number of natural disasters and the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the land, people and equipment have all been ‘worn out’ over the years, according to a CNN report. With little hope for change in the near future, North Korea is destined to remain one of the planet’s most corrupt and destitute nations.
Tie – 1. Somalia
- Corruption score: 8
- Power structure: Almost none; “in the process of building a federal parliamentary republic” – CIA
Somalia may just be the most unstable country on the entire planet. The country has become infamous in the United States as being the setting for the Blackhawk Down incident, as well as the country’s pirates who are known to take over passing ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. The country is barely held together by an incredibly loose central government, and is more accurately being run by a number of competing clans and warlords, creating lots of hostility and division.
Life in Somalia is notoriously tough. On the economic front, many people make a living from raising livestock or farming, and others from fishing. Of course, with things remaining such a mess at the top of the power structure, any long-term planning for social programs and infrastructure is difficult. According to The World Bank, only 29% of the country’s population has been enrolled in school, and life expectancy is only 55 years. Both of these numbers rank well-below most other countries, and provide some insight into the internal strife the country is experiencing.
Beyond these things, information on the inner workings of Somalia’s government and its economic system are scarce. That alone is rather telling, as corrupt officials may not want outsiders seeing the true picture of what’s going on inside the country’s borders.
Honorable Mention: The United States
- Corruption score: 74
- Power structure: Democratic Republic
There has to be an honorable mention for the United States, which many people figure has to be the most corrupt nation on Earth. The fact is, the U.S. does have a great deal of corruption in many forms, like lobbying, bribery, gerrymandering, and bought elections. But according to the corruption index, the U.S. pales in comparison to countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The economic system of the U.S. — although often portrayed as ‘free-market’ — does not quite live up to that description, in many cases. A quick look at the telecom or energy industry shows that many monopolistic forces are at play, and big money oftentimes can get laws rewritten to preserve power and influence. Pressure from big business and labor groups is a major factor in why America is the only major world power without a nationalized healthcare system, and why there has been enormous growth in inequality, particularly as of late.
There are definitely many issues the United States needs to work out — from the financial system to elections — but with the status quo firmly set in place, there isn’t much indication that citizens should expect big-time change in the near-term.
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