Why do some countries suck? There are some countries more people would like to be in and another set of countries that most of the inhabitants want to flee. What causes this? It’s mainly about corruption, and in the 21st century we have a much better idea of how much and where it is. International corruption surveys (especially the two decade old Transparency International project) shows the relative corruption in all the world’s nations. The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index first appeared in 1993 and is assembled by surveying local business people. This reveals a lot of the bad behavior that goes on among government bureaucrats as well as in business and the country in general. The Transparency International poll is a largely voluntary effort that is accurate enough to be used for professional risk management analysis (an essential tool for banks, exporters and potential investors).
Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The three most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 (Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia) and the least corrupt are 91 (New Zealand and Denmark). A look at this index each year adds an element of reality to official government pronouncements. For example, China has been having more trouble (many and larger demonstrations and growing doubts about the real capabilities of the Chinese military). But in 2014 China’s score was 36, which was down from 40 a year earlier. So whatever China is actually doing about corruption (mostly government press releases), it is not having much impact in reality. While there is more corruption in East Asia than in the West, there are some areas where it is very bad. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones.
The 2011 Arab Spring uprising, partly in reaction to high levels of corruption has made corruption worse in Arab countries that underwent government change. In the last year Libya has gone from 21 to 19, Yemen from 23 to 19 and Iraq from 18 to 16. The Middle East averages 37 against the world average (for 175 countries) of 43. Egypt, which is still suffering unrest, is still as corrupt as ever. The two least corrupt nations in the region are 91 while the U.S. is 74, Canada is 81, Australia is 80 and Mexico 35. There are bright spots in the Middle East, with the UAE at 70, and Africa where Botswana is 63. Thus if the UAE can rid itself of corruption (and has gradually been doing so for years) then there is hope for even the worst cases. This has been seen happening in Africa where some countries have made remarkable turnarounds.
The corruption not only makes life difficult for locals and foreign investors but also has a major influence on military affairs. That’s because corruption in the building and operation of the armed forces has been around, world-wide, for a long time. In the last two decades a lot more of the details on how this work have become widely known. This has been facilitated by better and cheaper communications (cell phones and the Internet) and the end of the Cold War (that eliminated the police state atmosphere that kept a third of humanity cloaked in layers of secrecy).
With more data on corruption being collected by this “crowd sourcing” method there is enough data to reveal some indication of how and why there is so much corruption in military procurement and within many armed forces. What is comes down to is excessive secrecy and lack of any real fear of getting punished. Many countries declare all defense related matters state secrets and thus there is little monitoring of what is bought and from who and at what price. This is a perfect environment for thieving officials. Then there is the realization that for most countries war is rare and you can steal defense funds safely and weaken the military secure in the knowledge that if war does comes you can always find other reasons to explain the poor battlefield performance.
Corruption in military spending is an ancient problem, with some of the oldest known historical records complaining about it. In many cultures, past and present it was taken as a given that, if you got a government job, you had a license to steal. In the military, this means weapons are built in substandard ways, equipment is not properly maintained and the troops are often not paid. Military corruption accounts for most of the poor military performance in the past, present and future.
The corruption takes many forms. Mainly it is the idea that everything is for sale, like promotions and assignments. Lower ranking officers and NCOs will often sell weapons and equipment that was reported "destroyed" or "missing." Commanders who are not doing so well, can pay to have reports of their performance upgraded. On the plus side senior government officials tend to be aware of all this bad behavior and the impact it is having on the military. Thus they have doubts about how effective the military would be in another war and are thus encouraged to avoid getting into a war.
These ancient practices are becoming more difficult to sustain. For example, journalists now more carefully report military response to national disasters that employ troops to help out. Troops that have performance problems here will not do any better in combat, and often for the same reasons (decrepit and poorly maintained equipment and low morale because of poor living conditions and stolen pay). Even in countries (like China or Russia) where journalists are not supposed to report such embarrassing events, the journalists discuss it among themselves, and some of these discussions got onto the Internet and into general circulation. While most governments try to keep details of military corruption out of the media, they cannot control the Internet. People love to gossip, especially in a police states. Even with all this new pressure, most governments (85 percent by one count) do not allow much access to what is going on with the defense budget. Can’t let the enemy know how much is being stolen now can we?
Even with all this secrecy the widespread use of the Internet and cell phones in police states like China has made a lot more details of corruption suddenly visible. For example, in the latest Transparency International ranking of corruption in nations, China’s score dropped despite what the government says about its efforts against corruption. International surveys like this are more trusted by most Chinese and a great embarrassment to the government. More worrisome is the fact that the least corrupt countries share characteristics (free speech, free media, fair courts) that are lacking in China mainly because most government officials do not want these things but most Chinese do. This is not just a Chinese problem but a universal one.