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Key Findings From The 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index

Transparency International has released its 27th annual Corruption Perceptions Index, revealing that corruption levels are at a worldwide standstill.

by Niall McCarthy 7 min

    Berlin-based NGO Transparency International has released its 27th annual Corruption Perceptions Index which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption on a scale of zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The research found that global corruption levels remain at a standstill with 86% of countries making little to no progress in tackling the problem over the past decade.

    Global developments in a nutshell

    In many corners of the world, the response to the pandemic has created conditions where public sector corruption has been able to flourish. Notably, this has occurred in regions previously considered “clean” such as Western Europe. This year’s CPI states that countries in Western Europe and the European Union are continuing to wrestle with transparency and accountability in their response to COVID-19, a development which is threatening to derail a previously solid reputation.

    Likewise, increasing restrictions on basic civil freedoms in parts of Asia Pacific, the Americas, Eastern Europe and Central Asia have allowed corruption to go unchecked. In the Middle East and North Africa, old trends remain unchanged as the interests of a powerful minority continue to dominate the political and private landscape with any progress battling corruption remaining negligible.

    A closer look at the country scores

    The 2021 CPI found that 131 countries have made no significant progress in reducing corruption over the last 10 years while 27 recorded historic lows in their CPI score. Two thirds of countries scored below 50 out of 100 while the global average was just 43 out of 100. This year, Denmark, Finland and New Zealand were the cleanest countries in the ranking, tied with a score of 88 out of 100. With a score of just 11, South Sudan was rock bottom of the 2021 CPI.

    Top scoring countries

    • Denmark
    • Finland
    • New Zealand
    • Norway
    • Singapore


    Bottom scoring countries

    • South Sudan
    • Syria
    • Somalia
    • Venezuela
    • Yemen

    Spotlight on Europe

    As has been the case historically, Western Europe and the European Union once again topped the 2021 CPI with an average score of 66 out of 100. Despite that, progress has stagnated and as mentioned above, a worrying new normal has been established. Accountability and transparency measures that were neglected and rolled back during the pandemic have yet to be restored. Meanwhile a series of procurement scandals during the fight against Covid-19 has undermined public trust even further.

    “Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite early warnings, Europe continues to use the crisis as an excuse for stagnating anti-corruption efforts and troubling decisions”, according to Transparency International. Notably, no country in Europe has remained untouched by public-sector corruption and this year’s CPI refers to a slew of specific incidents.

    Highlights include the continuation of the “golden passports” scandal in Cyprus, public contracting and “sleaze” scandals in the UK, a face mask procurement scandal that implicated members of parliament in Germany and irregularities in the Dutch Ministry of health, Welfare and Sport’s COVID-19 spending obligations. Scoring was once again especially weak across Eastern Europe where Bulgaria (42), Hungary (43) and Romania (45) remain the region’s weakest performers.

    Despite the frustration of stagnation, it isn’t all bad news for Europe. Estonia gained 10 points since 2012 and it is well underway to a positive anti-corruption plan for 2021-2025. Italy and Greece have both recorded improvements in their scores since 2012 thanks to effective anti-corruption reforms. Slovakia stands out from its immediate neighbours due to improvements in whistleblower protections, greater transparency in selecting high-ranking officials and a stronger performance from the judiciary and police in investigating past corruption offences.

    The Americas: United States remains stuck at an all-time low

    Even though the Biden administration prioritised corruption as core national security concern last year, the United States remains stuck at an all-time low of 67 points. There was some progress in 2021 when Congress passed legislation about beneficial ownership to a newly-created central bureau which would significantly aid authorities’ ability to detect, investigate and sanction financial crime.

    Unfortunately, that move was not enough to improve the US performance in the latest CPI. Yet another low score this year can be attributed to persistent attacks against free and fair elections that culminated in the events of January 6th when a mob violently assaulted the Capitol. An increasingly untransparent and confusing campaign finance system was a further reason for the US languishing in 67th position globally.

    Elsewhere in the Americas, Mexico failed to improve its score of 31 despite strong anti-corruption rhetoric from the president. A lack of recovered assets and a growing number of scandals involving close associates of the president contributed to the country’s poor performance. Argentina is the country in the region that has seen its score decline the most, primarily due to interference in the judiciary by political authorities and abuses of power during the pandemic. Similar behaviour was observed in Peru which saw its score fall two points.

    Venezuela had one of the lowest scores globally at just 14 and it has been plagued by widespread corruption that has led to serious social rights violations. Recent years have seen the judicial system become an instrument of repression while there has been an increase in political prisoners, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

    Progress held back in the Asia Pacific region

    Even though the Asia Pacific region had some top performers such as New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, most countries scored below the global average of 43. Transparency International warns that the case of India is especially worrying and that some of the mechanisms used to reign in corruption are weakening. The country’s score has remained stagnant over the past decade and concerns about the status of democracy are growing. Journalists and activists are at heightened risk while civil society organisations speaking out against the government have been targeted.

    China has recorded a 9-point gain since 2014 due to President Xi Jinping’s strong anti-corruption rhetoric. While he has clamped down on some major corruption problems that deterred investment, new forms have manifested themselves. An example includes collusion where high-level officials have used their powers to redistribute formerly state-owned assets both to themselves and to politically-connected firms. It is also important to note here that Chinese limits on fundamental freedoms makes it impossible for a free-press and civil society to serve as anti-corruption watchdogs.

    As in other parts of the world, Asia has experienced an uptick in corruption scandals due to the pandemic. Large scale financial responses to the crisis have inevitably led to corruption and wrongdoing in emergency procurement that has led to price inflating, theft of medical supplies and sales of both counterfeit medicines and materials. Asia’s corruption issues have been worsened by populist strongmen who have been able to portray themselves as more effective than state institutions in order to stay in power.

    Key developments in the Middle East and Africa

    Long-running conflicts, political misconduct and private interests overtaking the common good have led to a deterioration in corruption in the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia was a promising democracy but its president has seized control of the legislative branch while the country’s anti-corruption agency has been shuttered. Egypt was a poor performer as well with dissent punished and protests brutally suppressed, resulting in a score of just 33.

    Elsewhere in Africa, protracted armed conflicts and rising terrorist threats have exacerbated serious long-term corruption problems. Overcoming the challenge in the continent’s lowest scoring countries of Equatorial Guinea (17), Somalia (13) and South Sudan (11) seems especially daunting. There has been improvement in some areas, however, such as in Angola where President João Lourenço was elected before taking steps to combat corruption. Senegal has also significantly improved its CPI performance over the last decade and its milestones include the creation of the Office for the Fight against Fraud and Corruption as well as the passage of an asset declaration law, though progress has stalled recently.

    In the Middle East, Jordan has suffered from little separation of power between the executive and parliament which has aided corruption. The government has also been accused of misusing safety measures to violate freedoms of assembly and speech during the pandemic. Lebanon is notable case where high levels of political corruption have caused several major crises, particularly the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port in 2020. Widespread protests against political corruption and the country’s economic meltdown were met with persecution and repression by the authorities, causing Lebanon’s CPI score to collapse.

    Despite the UAE and Qatar being the top-performing countries in the Middle East, both have weathered major transnational scandals such as the Pandora Papers and the Financial Action Task Force finding caps in their anti-money laundering frameworks. A dismal human rights record and an exploitative sponsorship system called “kafala” have resulted in further corruption issues in both nations.


    Transparency International remarks that corruption may be a multifaceted problem but it is one that we know how to solve. To that end, the organisation has a number of recommendations:

    Uphold the rights needed to hold power to account: Governments are recommended to roll back any disproportionate restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly introduced since the beginning of the pandemic. Ensuring justice for human rights defenders who have been the victim of crimes also has to be an urgent priority.

    Restore and strengthen institutional checks on power: In order to effectively sanction wrongdoing, public oversight bodies such as anti-corruption agencies and supreme audit institutions have to be independent, well resourced and empowered. In addition, parliaments and courts have to remain vigilant to prevent executive overreach.

    Combat transnational corruption: In many advanced economies, systematic weaknesses allow cross-border corruption to occur without detection. This must be addressed and sanctioned by closing legal loopholes and regulating professional enablers of financial crime.

    Uphold the right to information in government spending: As part of pandemic recovery efforts, governments are advised to honour their pledge in the June 2021 UNGASS political declaration to include anti-corruption safeguards in public procurement.


    180 countries and territories were ranked by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people. The research relies on 13 independent data sources from 12 different institutions. They are then standardised on a scale of 0-100 before the average is calculated, along with the measure of uncertainty.

    Browse the full Corruption Perceptions Index here

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    Niall McCarthy
    Niall McCarthy

    Niall is a Content Writer at the EQS Group. Originally from Ireland, he previously worked as a journalist, which included reporting on major corruption trends worldwide.