Nigeria tops world league of sleaze

The bad news: corruption around the world is as bad as it was. The good news: it is a bigger international issue than ever before. The consequence: things have a chance of getting better in the medium or longer term. That, in effect, is the message contained in a report published yesterday by the Berlin-based organisation, Transparency International.

The organisation focuses on corruption worldwide, and produces an annual index of the perceived goodies and baddies. Nigeria, unsurprisingly, is the worst of the lot. The Nordic countries walk off with the prizes - Denmark, Finland and Sweden hold first, second and third place respectively as the "Mr Cleans" of the world, and Norway comes in at number seven.

Just behind Nigeria come Bolivia, Colombia and Russia. But Transparency International is at pains to emphasise that the blame does not just lie with the developing countries which cluster at the bottom of the list. In the words of Peter Eigen, chairman of Transparency International: "A large share of the corruption is the explicit product of multinational corporations, headquartered in leading industrialised countries, using massive bribery and kickbacks to buy contracts in the developing world and the countries in transition [namely, the post-Communist economies]".

The organisation is also keen to emphasise that better governance, with less corruption, can have spin-offs for commercial success and national prosperity. The authors point to a comparative study of Singapore (number nine on the list) and Mexico (sixth from bottom) which suggests that the difference in levels of corruption is equivalent to raising the marginal tax rate by 20 per cent - with huge knock-on implications for inward investment. In Mr Eigen's words: "Every day, the poor scores [in the corruption index] are not being dealt with means more impoverishment, less education, less health care."

The publication of the index has sometimes had remarkable knock-on effects. In Pakistan, which came off second worst in last year's index, the index itself became a national reference point. In Malaysia, the government reacted angrily to its low ranking, and complained of Western "cultural imperialism". The chairman of the advisory council is Olusegun Obasanjo, the respected former Niger- ian leader who was jailed by the present regime. One of the British members is Ian Martin, a former secretary-general of Amnesty International - another reminder of the organisation's non- partisan status.

Transparency International admits that there can be no precisely "objective" measurement of corruption. None the less, the index is compiled from a poll of business polls, and therefore gives a revealing consensus view. Where there is large variance in perceptions, this is indicated. Because a minimum of four polls is required before a country can be included in the list, Nigeria can take comfort in the fact that it may not be the most corrupt country in the world - merely the country whose corruption has been most thoroughly attested to.

The new international focus on corruption may be yet another unexpected result of the end of the Cold War. One early knock-on effect in Africa was that democracy suddenly ceased to be an irrelevant concept. For decades, the Soviet Union and the West had backed different dictatorships, caring little about the implications for the continent's peoples. As the superpower rivalry fell away, so, too, did the strength of those regimes. Now, the spotlight is on corruption, perceived as a reinforcement of existing poverty. The light may be shining, but nobody is expecting the early arrival of a bribe-free world.

Best and worst

Most corrupt*

Nigeria

Bolivia

Colombia

Russia

Pakistan

Least corrupt

Denmark

Finland

Sweden

New Zealand

Canada

(*of the 52 countries with sufficient evidence to make a ranking)

(*of the 52 countries with sufficient evidence to make a ranking)

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