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U.S. Corruption On The Rise

By Nancy Boswell and Shruti Shah

Corruption is on the rise and a growing concern in the United States, according to the seventh edition of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, released today to coincide with International Anti-Corruption Day.

The results are eye opening: 72% of respondents believe corruption has increased in the U.S. in the last three years. There is some cause for hope, however, as the vast majority of people in the U.S. and around the world expressed willingness to report incidents of fraudulent behavior.

Unlike its better-known cousin, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which reflects the perception of experts and informed observers, the Barometer surveys the general public. In fact, it is the only worldwide public opinion survey on views and experiences of corruption. As such, it provides a ground-level view of corruption and the effectiveness of efforts to curb it. It also provides a measure of people’s personal experiences of corruption.

The 2010 edition brings together the responses of 91,781 people in 86 countries, offering the most comprehensive country coverage to date.

The Barometer includes general questions about people’s perceptions of corruption and experiences with bribery. It examines which institutions people trust to curb corruption and whether they believe their government’s efforts to fight corruption are working.  For the first time, the 2010 Barometer asks the general public about their personal willingness to engage in the fight against corruption.

As has been the case in previous reports, this year’s offers sobering results. Six out of 10 people around the world, for example, say that corruption has increased over the last three years and one in four reported that they paid bribes in the last year.

The results for the U.S. are also discouraging. The percentage of respondents who believe corruption has increased here is up 6% from the 2005 report, and 71% think that the U.S. Government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. The Barometer reveals an overall erosion of trust in political and public institutions, which may be a byproduct of our highly partisan times.  U.S. respondents gave political parties a rating of 4.3 on a scale that defines 5 as “extremely corrupt,” and while a question regarding legislatures doesn’t differentiate between national and state bodies, neither Congress nor state legislatures should take comfort in the 4.0 scored in that category.

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the findings of this report and those of the latest CPI, which was released in October and also revealed notable slippage by the U.S. The same reasons that we and others have suggested for the U.S.’s drop from 19 to 22 in the CPI ranking -– namely, the activities leading to the recent financial crisis, the lack of transparency in our campaign finance system, the spate of high profile state and local corruption scandals and Congressional ethics issues – most likely contribute to the public’s negative view.

The U.S has an enviable record of enforcement of foreign bribery cases, both for companies headquartered here and abroad, but the concerns reflected in these results merit an equally vigorous approach.

There is some good news, however.  The Barometer also found that 70% of people worldwide would be willing to report an incident of corruption. In the U.S., the figure is an even higher 92%. Another encouraging statistic is that 82% of U.S. respondents (versus 70% globally) think that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.

The questions eliciting these scores are new to the 2010 Barometer.  While we cannot be certain of the reasons behind the generally high scores, there can be little doubt that some of the credit goes to the media, NGOs, and ordinary citizens involved in the corruption fight.  Their continued engagement is crucial as it will force policy makers to act.

Nancy Boswell is the President and CEO of Transparency International-USA and Shruti Shah is a senior policy director at Transparency International-USA. Both can be contacted here.

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