Corruption continues to intensify in two-fifths of the world's nations, nurtured by persistent poverty, political instability and crime.
In percentage terms, the number of countries perceived to be corrupt fell slightly, according to recent surveys by Transparency International, an international watchdog group. But that's only because the sample size of its annual study has gotten larger with the addition of 17 countries.
Of the 180 countries looked at in its most recent rankings, 132 had index scores below 5, including Greece, India, Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Some 56 countries were rated below 3, a level that indicates rampant corruption, including Argentina, Pakistan and Russia.
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Transparency International developed its index on a scale from 0 to 10, with the lowest number indicating the highest perception of corruption. The index is based on worldwide surveys of country specialists, business officials, human rights monitors and others.
For the most recent index, the best-scoring countries were New Zealand, Denmark and Finland, sharing an index ranking of 9.4. At the bottom of the heap, where perceptions of corruption were highest, Somalia and Myanmar are tied with an index ranking of 1.4.
Of course it's easy to see the difference between the two ends of the spectrum. New Zealand, Denmark and Finland have wealth and stable economies and governments, and don't stoke a lot of international controversy. Somalia and Myanmar are torn by armed conflict and political oppression.
The divide runs along economic realities. Forty per cent of the countries rated below 3 are classified by the World Bank as low income. It doesn't help if the governments are weak or engaged in a struggle for power.
"Countries torn apart by conflict pay a huge toll in their capacity to govern," says Huguette Labelle, chairman of Transparency International. "With public institutions crippled or nonexistent, mercenary individuals help themselves to public resources, and corruption thrives."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, probably wins the prize for worst public relations of the year. Last fall, the military-led government cracked down on protesting monks, killing a few in the riots that broke out as the government rounded up protesters. Internet access was blocked to prevent news from getting out to the outside world.
To top it off, in May the Burmese government hindered international relief efforts after the most damaging cyclone in its history, which killed an estimated 130,000. America's first lady, Laura Bush, has led an active campaign against the military junta, calling on international bodies to pressure it to move toward democracy.
Somalia has its own problems, not least of which is persistent and growing piracy in the waters off its shores. There have been more than two dozen piracy attacks reported in the Gulf of Aden since the beginning of this year (see "Sea Piracy's Bloody Growth").
The double whammy of weak government and abundant natural resources also stokes corruption, particularly where personal greed can run rampant without fear of recrimination. In Equatorial Guinea, 10th on the Transparency International list, 30% of the profits from recently discovered offshore oil fields goes straight into the state officials' pockets.
Nearby in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tied for 10th with Guinea, government officials demand payments from mining companies. The country has abundant reserves of some of the most sought-after commodities: copper, gold, uranium and coltan.
There is hope, however. Several African countries showed marked improvement in their rankings over one year, including Seychelles (to 57 from 63), South Africa (to 43 from 51) and Swaziland (to 84 from 121). Transparency International said the jumps mean genuine reform efforts can help combat perceptions of corruption.
Outside Africa, many countries that improved over the year are in Eastern Europe: Croatia (to 64 from 69), the Czech Republic (to 41 from 46), Macedonia (to 84 from 105) and Romania (to 69 from 84). Italy went to 41 from 45.
"The concentration of gainers in Southeast and Eastern Europe testifies to the galvanizing effect of the European Union accession process on the fight against corruption," says Transparency International.
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