No society is completely free of corruption, nor will one ever be so. There are always some bad apples. Just ask Switzerland, which ranks as the joint-fifth cleanest country in the world but has also produced Sepp Blatter, whom we now know is under investigation (though not indicted, at least thus far) by the FBI as part of their probe into allegations of corruption at FIFA.
But while no nation or large organisation can ever be completely spotless, we do know that some tend to be less clean than others. Here is the map of Transparency International’s index of perceptions of public sector corruption for 2014:
At first glance, we can spot two trends. Northern and North-Western Europe tend to be cleaner than Southern and Eastern Europe. Beyond the Old World, a relative lack of corruption tends to be a hallmark of Anglosphere countries – the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Barbados all feature in Transparency International’s top twenty nations.
But it evidently isn’t as simple as speaking English, or having been conquered at some point by Britain. Otherwise the large tracts of sub-Saharan Africa which are members of the Commonwealth would be up there, too, and most of them are not. So would India, and yet that superpower is halfway down the table.
It seems relative freedom from corruption is a complex combination of institutional, religious, political and cultural factors. We know that democracy, while itself vulnerable at times to the corrupt, tends to produce cleaner states than authoritarianism. We know a free press helps to expose and root out misbehaviour. We know that old, stable institutions tend to function as a bastion against abuse, especially when combined with transparency. We know that properly respected and protected property rights – the oft-forgotten lynchpin of a free society – help to guard against the whims of tyranny and to restrain the ability of officials to act in response to bribes even if they might like to. We also know that the cultural rot in officialdom brought about by dictatorship can take a very long time to heal, even after democracy and liberty are re-established.
So far, so comfortable. But there are other, more difficult, considerations. What part might religion – or, rather, the secular power of religious authorities – play in the question of corruption versus cleanliness? It’s notable that regardless of constitutional arrangements, having a religion as a major driver of society and politics does not often go hand-in-hand with a clean state. For that matter, is it just a coincidence that Protestant Northern Europe continues to perform better on these measures than the Catholic South or the Orthodox East? Might that be about the religion themselves, or – as seems more likely – about the part the religion plays in those societies?
These aren’t easy questions, but they are nonetheless important. What cultural factors – habits, values or inclinations – make for a cleaner system?
The good news is that just as international bureaucracies like FIFA and the EU often to learn the wrong way to behave – choosing to be unaccountable, secretive and, as a result, corrupt – there is plenty of evidence that any society can learn how to be relatively free of corruption. Some appear to have adopted those principles through contact with Britain over the centuries (while others evidently haven’t), and others have come to similar conclusions through their own route. At one time, racists would claim corruption is somehow an inherent characteristic, but it is now undeniable that such theories are nonsense - each continent on Earth holds examples of good and bad nations. Taiwan is relatively free of corruption, while China languishes far down the table. Botswana is 31st in the world, while neighbouring Zimbabwe is 156th.
In FIFA’s case, a member of the Anglosphere has stepped in to clean it up. But it shouldn’t have to be that way – our goal should be for those values to be universal, and for the outcry in any future scandal to come from every part of the globe. The most important question is: how?