Corruption, Transparency, and Somalia’s Future


President Hassan  smiles upon arrival at a meeting with PM Desalegn in Addis Ababa/fileBy Terra Lawson-Remer

Transparency International just released its 2012 country rankings of corruption in the public sector. The index is based on a variety of corruption-related data, including public opinion polls and assessments collected from experts living and working in the areas studied. It examines enforcement of anticorruption laws, prevalence of bribery, and government transparency, among other factors.

Top of the list for the least corrupt governments are Denmark, New Zealand, and Finland. This should surprise no one. I spent time doing doctoral work in Finland, and was constantly impressed by the Finns’ remarkable trust in strangers. (One friend of a colleague of a friend–whom I had never met–let me stay virtually for free in their beautiful unoccupied Danish Modern apartment, complete with sauna, taking pity on a broke graduate student.) Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia bring up the rear, ranking as the bottom three of the 176 countries and territories surveyed. Again, based on my own experience working on the challenges of the banking sector and extractive industries development in Afghanistan while at U.S. Treasury, this assessment is an affirmation of the tragically obvious.

The real question is whether the evaluation and ranking of transparency (or lack thereof) can help build the political will and public pressure to make difficult reforms that challenge entrenched interests. Does transparency about transparency increase accountability?

Since its first appearance on the list in 2005, Somalia’s position and score has changed little. Receiving only a 2.1 out of 10 in 2005, Somalia earned an abysmal 0.8 in 2012 (8 out of 100 potential points) because of its perceived high levels of administrative and political corruption. According to a UN report released earlier this year, “the systematic misappropriation, embezzlement and outright theft of public resources have essentially become a system of governance” in the country. The report also explained that large portions of international donor funds were being misused.

Yet, despite this prolonged bleak picture, there is hope for reducing corruption in Somalia in the new year. Although the country has been without an effective central government since 1991, in September, Somalia elected a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a professor and peace activist who has worked for UNICEF and several civil society groups. Experts argue that Mohamud represents a change for Somali politics, but he faces daunting obstacles that will make reform difficult. Alongside poverty and economic stagnation, Mohamud must contend with Somalia’s corrupt and weak government, which is threatened by piracy and violent opposition forces. Africa scholars recommend that Mohamud’s top priorities should be statebuilding and anticorruption efforts, such as establishing and empowering an anticorruption commission.

Can new reform efforts by new reformers upend expectations in future Transparency rankings? Let’s hope so.