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The year of living more honestly

Shift in thought

A global ranking of countries on corruption finds more are improving. Are people more demanding of honest governance? If so, they are taking different paths.

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People in Rio de Janeiro hold a Brazilian flag during a Dec. 13 demonstration criticizing the ruling Workers' Party for a massive corruption scandal at the state-run oil company.

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One gauge of humanity’s level of honesty is the Corruption Perceptions Index. This global survey, taken every year by the Berlin-based group Transparency International, ranks countries by reputation for bribery, embezzlement, and similar official vices. In its latest report, TI hints that a trend may be afoot. Last year, more countries improved their scores on corruption than declined.

TI researchers say the reason for the shift may lie in more people demanding accountability, transparency, and fairness in their leaders. Examples have helped. As more countries have moved to end a culture of impunity, other people around the globe have also insisted on integrity in public life. The Internet is an excellent enabler of this trend. But more than that, honesty is its own force multiplier.

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The countries making improvements on the TI index have taken different paths. Anti-corruption protests have become more popular, driven by the organizing power of social media. In democracies, these uprisings have helped bring new leaders promising reform, such as in India and Romania. But just as effective are probing journalists, government whistle-blowers, courageous prosecutors, independent investigative bodies, and foreign pressure.

Greece was forced to change by the European Union after lying about its debt. A new leftist government has initiated reforms. But the Greek people are still undergoing a “crisis of values,” according to TI, trying to change old habits of tax evasion and patronage. In Romania, where protests helped fell a corrupt prime minister, the EU says anti-corruption reforms are being “internalized.” A mental change has begun, in other words.

In some countries, such as Sri Lanka and Ghana, citizen activists have helped “to drive out the corrupt.” Brazil, which has seen massive protests, has also relied on US-educated prosecutors to uncover a huge political scandal related to the national oil company. In Guatemala and Indonesia, change has come from independent anti-graft bodies. In Mexico, journalists, both domestic and foreign, have uncovered big corruption cases, such as Wal-Mart’s bribing of Mexican officials.

Institutional change by itself is not enough. Corruption is merely a symptom of deeper social attitudes. Once people wake up to the economic damage from official graft, attitudes can change. Moral reform then leads to change in government. Countries may even then decide to improve their ranking on the world corruption index.

In 2015, says José Ugaz, TI’s chairman, “People across the globe sent a strong signal to those in power: It is time to tackle grand corruption.”