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A street cleaner walks past a poster promoting Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra and his anti-corruption proposals. A street cleaner walks past a poster promoting Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra and his proposed reforms aimed at tackling corruption, in Lima, Peru, June 4, 2019 (AP photo by Martin Mejia).

Why Tackling Corruption Is So Urgent—and So Difficult

Monday, Aug. 24, 2020

The world is constantly reminded that corruption knows no geographic boundaries. In South Africa, former President Jacob Zuma remains embroiled in court cases involving corruption allegations that helped remove him from power, while in Malaysia, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was recently found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison over the fraud and embezzling charges that precipitated his downfall. 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. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been plagued by officials who have used their offices for private gain and been forced to resign.

The impact of actual corruption is devastating, whether it siphons money from public use 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.

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, which then allows them to weaken institutions and divert attention from their own use of the levers of power to enrich themselves.

WPR has covered corruption in detail and continues to examine key questions about future developments. What role will Trump’s failed promise to “drain the swamp” play in upcoming U.S. elections? 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.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Latin America’s Anti-Corruption Drive Has Stalled at the Worst Possible Time

Until recently, anti-corruption initiatives were the brightest, most promising trend in Latin America. But they have steadily been derailed and are now converging with the scourge of the coronavirus, adding to the region’s challenges and raising the barriers to recovery after the pandemic ends.

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 Politics of 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 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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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.