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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 then-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

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The world is constantly reminded that corruption knows no geographic boundaries. In South Africa, former President Jacob Zuma was recently jailed for refusing to testify before an anti-graft commission and remains embroiled in several other court cases involving corruption allegations that helped remove him from power. In Malaysia, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2020 over the fraud and embezzling charges that precipitated his downfall, a verdict that was recently upheld by a court of appeals. 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. And 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.

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.

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.

Our Most Recent Coverage

To Address Inequality and Poverty, Start By Tackling Corruption

The global challenges of inequality and poverty will never be properly addressed while endemic corruption is allowed to persist in modern states. The establishment of an International Anti-Corruption Court as a court of last resort in cases where national courts cannot or will not take action would be a good first step.

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.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 12 weeks for just $12 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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