The world is constantly reminded that corruption knows no geographic boundaries. Over the past five years, leaders in South Africa, Peru and Malaysia were forced to step down, and in some cases convicted, over accusations of graft and corruption. 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. 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. And most recently, a graft investigation in Belgium led to the arrest of several officials working at the European Parliament, including an MEP who was forced to resign her position as one of the chamber’s vice presidents.
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.
Get our Insights on a range of topics, highlighting WPR’s original analysis, sent to your inbox.
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
As Ukraine fast approaches its third year of all-out war, flickers of domestic politics have begun to reappear, with the most sensitive issue being corruption. That has created a new challenge for Ukrainian members of parliament who want to ensure accountability without undermining the war effort, at a time when support from Western allies is being thrown into question.
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.
- Why Guatemala’s president-elect will have his work cut out for him in efforts to tackle entrenched corruption, in To Reform in Guatemala, Arevalo Will Need the World’s Attention
- Why a series of recent corruption scandals have been so damaging to Singapore’s ruling party, in Singapore’s Social Contract Is Starting to Fray
- Why the latest scandal to roil Colombia could permanently wound Petro’s presidency, in Another Scandal Puts Colombia’s Petro in Even Hotter Water
- What an anti-corruption case in Venezuela reveals about the inner workings of the Maduro regime, in A Corruption Scandal Puts Maduro’s Shadowy Fixer in the Spotlight
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.
- Why the EU’s anti-corruption efforts are creating tensions among member states, in The EU Pushes for a Common Playbook to Tackle Corruption
- Why a corruption scandal is making Uruguay’s president “politically toxic,” in A Corruption Scandal Is Making Waves in ‘Squeaky-Clean’ Uruguay
- Why there’s probably more to the EU Parliament’s corruption scandal than meets the eye, in The EU Parliament’s Qatar-gate Scandal Doesn’t Make Sense—Yet
- Why a recent parliamentary report on alleged corruption has put South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in grave political danger, in Ramaphosa’s Days May Be Numbered in South Africa
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.
- How Guatemala’s political elites used the country’s presidential election to insulate themselves from anti-graft campaigns, in In Guatemala’s Election, Mulet Could Be Democracy’s Last Hope
- How elites in Guatemala stymied anti-corruption efforts and contributed to the country’s descent into authoritarianism, in Guatemala’s Authoritarian Slide Under Giammattei Is Putting Biden in a Bind
- How the lack of accountability fueled Lebanon’s economic crisis, in Lebanon’s Fugitive Central Bank Chief Epitomizes the Dangers of Impunity
- Why impunity for graft in Lebanon is so hard to eradicate, in Lebanon’s New Government Is the Product of a Broken System
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.
- How Angola’s anti-corruption campaign ended up resembling a political vendetta more than genuine reform, in After Failing on Reforms, Angola’s Lourenco Opts for Repression
- How AMLO is weaponizing anti-corruption efforts in Mexico, in In Mexico, Corruption Scandals Leave No Politician Untouched—Not Even AMLO
- Why Vietnam’s anti-corruption crusade is not all good news, in The Costs of Trong’s Crusade Against Corruption in Vietnam
- Why Sierra Leone’s opposition is up in arms over an anti-corruption commission, in Is Sierra Leone’s Bio Going After Corruption, or His Adversaries?
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.