The perceived level of public-sector corruption in the United States is worsening, even as the country continues to lead international anti-corruption efforts. Much of the rest of the world isn’t faring any better.

According to Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), released Dec. 29, the United States fell four points from last year’s CPI, receiving its lowest score in seven years and marking the first time since 2011 that the United States fell outside the top 20 highest-ranking countries on the CPI.

Among 180 countries and territories ranked, the United States scored 71 on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). “A four-point drop in the CPI score is a red flag and comes at a time when the United States is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances, as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power,” said Zoe Reiter, TI’s acting representative to the United States.

TI’s 2017 corruption barometer survey explains these findings further. In that survey, nearly six in 10 Americans said the United States was more corrupt than the year prior, with 44 percent saying they considered the president and officials in office as the most corrupt.

“The expert opinion captured by the CPI supports the deep concern over corruption in government reported by Americans in our 2017 survey,” Reiter said. “Both experts and the public believe the situation is getting worse.” Many Americans in the 2017 survey expressed an unfavorable opinion of corporate America, as well, with 32 percent believing that most or all corporate executives are corrupt.

Beyond the United States, the 2018 CPI showed that perceived corruption is still rife globally: More than two-thirds of countries scored below 50 in the 2018 CPI, with an average score of 43. The lowest scoring region was Sub-Saharan Africa, with an average regional score of 32, whereas the highest scoring region was Western Europe and the European Union, with an average score of 66. Sixteen other countries saw their scores significantly decline, including Chile, Hungary, Mexico, Turkey, Malta, and Australia.

Below is a region-by-region analysis of the 2018 CPI to help compliance and risk officers tailor their anti-corruption practices further and help companies further inform their audit procedures.

Americas region

Scoring an average of 44 over the past three consecutive years, the Americas region—encompassing North America, South America, Mexico, and Canada—“continues to fail in making any serious inroads against corruption,” TI said. Of the 32 countries assessed in the Americas region, Canada ranked highest, with a score of 81, followed by the United States and Uruguay, with scores of 71 and 70, respectively.

Several countries in the region are failing to make any significant progress against corruption, even worsening in some parts. Brazil, for example, received its lowest CPI score in seven years, falling two points since last year, with a score of 35. Nicaragua, too, dropped four points on the CPI in the last seven years, with a score of 25. Chile and Mexico, with CPI scores of 67 and 28, also fared worse, experiencing a five- and six-point drop, respectively, since 2012.

Hovering at the bottom of the index for this region, with a score of 18, is Venezuela. This score reflects “systemic and persistent corruption across the country,” TI stated. Following behind Venezuela with poor scores of their own are Haiti (20) and Nicaragua (25).

The number of poor-performing countries in the Americas region “should come as no surprise given the challenges to the democratic systems and diminishing political rights across North, South, and Central America by populist and authoritarian leaders,” TI said. In this part of the world, several country leaders are using similar tactics that encourage corrupt acts, including:

  • An undermining of free and independent media, especially when coverage challenges leaders’ messaging;
  • Attempts at silencing and controlling civil society and international organizations;
  • An interference with or blunt use of national institutions to weaken the system of checks and balances and increase executive power; and
  • An increase in conflicts-of-interest and private influence.

“Our research makes a clear link between having a healthy democracy and successfully fighting public-sector corruption,” said TI Chair Delia Ferreira Rubio. “Corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak and, as we have seen in many countries, where undemocratic and populist politicians can use it to their advantage.”

Asia Pacific

With an average score of 44 for three consecutive years among the 31 countries assessed, the Asia Pacific region is on par with the Americas in its efforts—or lack thereof—to tackle corruption. “However, with two countries in the top 10 and two countries in the bottom 10, the region is highly diverse in its anti-corruption approach,” TI noted.

“A four-point drop in the CPI score is a red flag and comes at a time when the United States is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances, as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power.”

Zoe Reiter, Acting Representative to the United States, Transparency International

With a score of 87, New Zealand ranks highest in the region for its anti-corruption efforts and second overall on the CPI index (surpassed only by Denmark, with a score of 88). Following closely behind New Zealand are Singapore and Australia, with scores of 85 and 77, respectively. All these countries have well-functioning democratic systems, contributing to their top scores, according to TI.

The poorest performers in the region are North Korea (14), due to its widespread and enduring corruption across the country, followed by Afghanistan (16) and Cambodia (20).

According to TI, the most important countries to watch moving forward due to their “promising political developments” are Malaysia (47), Maldives (31), Pakistan (33), and India (41). In these countries, “massive public mobilization against corruption, coupled with significant political participation and voter turnout, resulted in new governments that promise extensive anti-corruption reforms,” TI said.

Western Europe and EU

With an average regional score of 66 out of 100, Western Europe and the European Union fare better than other parts of the globe. Moreover, 14 of the top 20 countries in this year’s CPI are from this region. “However, for a region that prides itself on some of the most robust integrity systems in the world, the patchwork of partially overlapping national and EU-level integrity systems presents its own problems and still has a long way to go to tackle corruption effectively,” TI said.

With 88 points, Denmark remains a global leader on the CPI, closely followed in this region by Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland, each with a score of 85. High scores, however, do not mean these countries are free from corruption. Consider, for example, the money-laundering scandal surrounding Danske Bank in Denmark, as well as the widespread corruptions scandals of Petrobras and Odebrecht, and the 1MDB scandal, each committed by Swiss banks.

The United Kingdom, too, plagued by corruption scandals, received its lowest score on the index since 2016, although it still ranks high at 11, with a respectable score of 80. Public-sector scandals involving Members of Parliament taking undeclared holidays paid for by highly corrupt regimes have contributed, in part, to this fall in score, as have questions over the origin of money used in the EU referendum, TI said. Scoring lowest in the Western Europe and the EU regions was Bulgaria (42), followed by Greece (45) and Hungary (46).

Eastern Europe and Central Asia

With an average score of 35, Eastern Europe and Central Asia was the second lowest-scoring region in the index, ranking slightly ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa. Few countries in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region have made progress in combatting corruption, according to TI.

Georgia leads the region with just 58 points on the CPI, followed by Montenegro (45) and Belarus (44). At the bottom, Turkmenistan received the lowest score in the region (20), followed by Uzbekistan (23) and Tajikistan (25). Among countries whose CPI score declined or stayed the same include Azerbaijan (25), Russia (28), Kazakhstan (31), Kosovo (37), Serbia (39), and Montenegro (45).

“Highly corrupt countries that score poorly on the CPI also tend to have fragile democratic institutions, and their citizens have weaker political and civil rights,” TI said. Many governments across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, for example, “fail to preserve the checks and balances that are foundational to democracy and instrumental in controlling corruption,” TI said.

MENA region

With an average score of 39, the Middle East and Northern Africa region falls behind both the Americas and Asia Pacific regions and ranks only slightly better than Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. With a score of 70, United Arab Emirates (UAE) leads the region on the CPI, followed by Qatar (62). The lowest scores in the region were in Syria (13), Yemen (14), and Libya (17), where instability, terrorism, war, and conflict flourish.

“Political corruption remains a central challenge, despite the work of many governments across the region to focus their national priorities on fighting corruption and increasing transparency,” TI said. “This is partly due to corrupt actors who are actively working against these measures and, unfortunately, exerting a great deal of influence over political leaders.”

Sub-Saharan Africa

With an average score of 32, Sub-Saharan Africa was the lowest scoring region in the 2018 CPI. For the seventh year in a row, Somalia made the bottom of the list, with a score of 10, followed by South Sudan and Syria, each with a score of 13.

While several countries in the region have adopted democratic principles of governance, “several are still governed by authoritarian and semi-authoritarian leaders,” TI said. “Autocratic regimes, civil strife, weak institutions, and unresponsive political systems continue to undermine anti-corruption efforts.”

Ranking highest in the region was Seychelles, with a score of 66, followed by Botswana and Cabo Verde, with scores of 61 and 57, respectively. Both Seychelles and Botswana “have relatively well-functioning democratic and governance systems, which help contribute to their scores,” TI said. “However, these countries are the exception rather than the norm in a region where most democratic principles are at risk and corruption is high.” In fact, several countries in this region experienced sharp declines in their CPI scores, including Burundi, Congo, Mozambique, Liberia, and Ghana.

Many low-performing countries share several common characteristics, “including few political rights, limited press freedoms, and a weak rule of law,” TI said. “In these countries, laws often go unenforced and institutions are poorly resourced with little ability to handle corruption complaints. In addition, internal conflict and unstable governance structures contribute to high rates of corruption.”

The findings are a reminder for risk and compliance officers to periodically revisit and monitor their anti-corruption compliance programs and conduct regular risk assessments to identify areas of greatest risk as it applies to various functions in different parts of the world.