Transparency International has come out with its latest rankings on state corruption and found New Zealand to be the least corrupt state on earth, scoring 9.4/10 (10 being perfection, defined as zero corruption). The SE Asian country I live in came out 3rd (at 9.2), which I found very surprising in that it is a one party authoritarian state in which an oligarchical few dominate the party, which in turn has its fingers in virtually every aspect of economic life in the country (for example, the largest state holding company happens to have as a CEO the spouse of the PM, who in turn is the son of the founder of the Party and first PM of the state; similarly, all of the military high command are members of the Party and retire to become high level officials in the civil service, by-passing careerists in the process). There may be little street-level graft by low-level officials, but influence-peddling and patronage networks abound.
I also am not sure about NZ’s ranking, given the Philip Field affair, Winston Peter’s shennanigans, a variety of Labour Party rorts and misconduct, the Immigration scandals and influence-buying by well-heeled foreigners, lack of accountability and transparency in government agencies (such as the SIS), and problems with procurement processes in situations such as the MoD/NZDF acquisition of the LAVs, MP housing and travel allowance excesses, etc. Nor do I think that National is any “cleaner” than Labour. So how did TI come up with its ranking?
It turns out that the ranking is based on reputational status, which in turn is based on perceptions Â of monetary corruption when doing business in a given country. In other words, the rankings are based on image and anecdotal evidence rather than time-lagged, objectively measurable universal variables or, dare I say it, reality. Ignoring non-monetary corruption ignores the reality of things such as patronage and influence-peddling, or of exploitation of privileged position for personal, non-remunerated gain. Things like discreet insider trading, subtle cooking of statistics, preferential treatment in securing housing in desirable areas–all of those are excluded by definition by TI. It seems that the rankings avoid institutionalised “high end” corruption while concentrating on perceptions of the lower end.
I would therefore argue that we should take the rankings with a grain of salt because, although it may accurately capture corruption realities towards the bottom of the scale where corruption is vulgar and obvious (say in places like Haiti, Nigeria or Pakistan), it is not suited to reflect the subtle genius of corruption in sophisticated societies where it simply is not necessary to pay individual bribes to get business done.
But then again, perhaps I am asking too much of TI and NZ deserves its award because the world is, after all, a very flawed place.