WPR Insight: Why Tackling Corruption Is So Urgent—and So Difficult


Why Tackling Corruption Is So Urgent—and So Difficult

March 20, 2023
Corruption knows no geographic boundaries, and its impact is devastating, particularly for developing countries. While recent revelations of massive corruption have made the issue a high priority for voters, the obstacles to effectively tackling corruption can prove to be persistent. That, in turn, can lead to popular disenchantment with leaders and democratic processes. Learn more when you subscribe to World Politics Review for just $1 for the first month.

The world is constantly reminded that corruption knows no geographic boundaries. Over the past few years, in South Africa, Peru and Malaysia, leaders were forced to step down, and in some cases convicted, over accusations of graft and corruption. A money laundering investigation launched in Brazil in 2008 expanded to take down a vast network of politicians and business leaders across Central and South America over the course of the following decade. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration saw a steady stream of officials who were forced to resign after being caught using their offices for private gain. And most recently, a graft investigation in Belgium has led to the arrest of several officials working at the European Parliament, including an MEP who was forced to resign her position as one of the chamber’s vice presidents.

The impact of actual corruption is devastating, whether it siphons money from government coffers or drives policy that is not in the public interest. The effects can be particularly pernicious in developing countries, where budgets are tight and needs are vast. The United Nations estimates that corruption costs $2.6 trillion in losses every year.

Bank customers hold up a defaced poster of Central Bank chief Riad Salameh, right, reading, “Stole my future,” in Arabic, during a protest in front of the Central Bank, Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 6, 2021 (AP photo by Bilal Hussein).

But even the perception of corruption is dangerous, undermining people’s faith in government institutions, a phenomenon that is helping to drive a crisis of democracy worldwide. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, most governments are seen as corrupt by their own citizens. The rise of populist governments in particular poses challenges. By their nature, populists tend to define themselves against a corrupt elite, but once in office, they often weaken institutions and divert attention from their own use of the levers of power to enrich themselves.

But while the fight against corruption has claimed numerous successes in recent years, it has also faced a backlash by entrenched elites keen to protect their privileges—and avoid accountability. Meanwhile, anti-corruption efforts can also be weaponized by opportunistic leaders to target their political rivals.

WPR has covered corruption in detail and continues to examine key questions about future developments. How prominently will support for anti-corruption efforts feature in U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy? Will corruption prompt more electoral backlashes around the world? Will high expectations lead to popular disenchantment when anti-corruption efforts fail? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Latest Coverage

Corruption Charges Are Flying in Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia

Though Peru’s protests have entered a lull in recent weeks, its neighbors in the Andes are now experiencing their own political challenges, with the presidents of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia having all hit their own rough patches in recent weeks. While the details of their political crises are different, two big trends connect them.

The Politics and Practice of Fighting Corruption

Whether in electoral backlashes or popular protests, voters increasingly make their outrage over corruption known. Whether or not they succeed in bringing down tainted governments and leaders depends on a number of factors, ranging from domestic institutions to international support.

The Challenge of Tackling Corruption

As recent revelations of massive corruption have made the issue a high priority for voters, politicians have been quick to capitalize on the appeal of anti-corruption rhetoric on the campaign trail. But once in office, the obstacles to effectively tackling corruption can prove to be persistent, often leading to unfulfilled expectations.

The Backlash Against Anti-Corruption Efforts

In some cases, success in tackling corruption can create its own problems. As entrenched elites find themselves in the crosshairs of effective investigators, they often fight back to protect their ill-gotten privileges. The results can leave institutions weakened and voters disillusioned.

The Potential Abuses of Anti-Corruption Efforts

Because corruption is universally considered a scourge, it is often easy to mobilize public opinion against it. But that can allow ruthless political leaders to use anti-corruption efforts to purge rivals or crack down on dissent, particularly in authoritarian countries.

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