Great NYT piece on corruption around the world, why it's hard to fight, and what can be done about it:
The most corrupt nations are indeed poor ones, but grand corruption can be found everywhere: illicit deals between top officials and big business have brought down governments in Japan and Europe. Money distorts America's political system as well -- that it is largely legal does not make it less corrupt.
Big governments tend to be less corrupt. It might seem intuitive that a large role for government in the economy would provide a large opportunity for mischief, but in fact weak states often lack the mechanisms to fight graft.
Democracy helps -- a free press, strong opposition political parties, an independent judiciary and a healthy civil society all limit corruption. But getting there is perilous. The transition to democracy tends to be a very corrupt period, during which shaky institutions, rapid privatizations and unclear rules contribute to the problem. Countries recently emerging from dictatorship tend to be more corrupt than the dictatorships they displaced.
Regional variations are unpredictable. Northern European countries tend to be less corrupt than Southern European countries. But a clean colonizer doesn't mean a clean colony. Although Britain is now one of the least corrupt European countries, Bangladesh and Nigeria, former British colonies, score high on a global list of the most corrupt countries.
A key factor is how a country makes its money. Oil hurts. Countries that make their money from oil have usually neglected to develop a middle class and solid political institutions. High levels of non-oil international trade help, perhaps because trade has historically given powerful private citizens an interest in effective government and leaders incentive to raise standards to international levels. Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile and Botswana, all trading nations, are significantly less corrupt than their neighbors and cleaner than many wealthier countries.
In the last couple of decades, anticorruption campaigns have met with sporadic success in isolated countries. But now, for the first time, the struggle against corruption has gone global. A nongovernmental group founded in 1993, Transparency International, today has chapters in 90 countries. It is best known for its annual ranking of the perception of corruption -- that is, the general sense among people doing business in a given country that officials are demanding bribes. But Transparency, based in Berlin, also mobilizes people to fight corruption and disseminates information on how best to do so.