Pacific corruption scores continue to stagnate: Urgent action required

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index adds Fiji as a fourth Pacific nation, as stagnation demonstrates the critical importance of corruption reform in the region to secure basic rights and freedoms.

The 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index reveals the need for urgent action in the Pacific to address corruption. From Fiji, which is newly showing up on the Index this year, to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands corruption is threatening the rights and freedoms of Pacific Islanders.  Positive efforts are being made by Pacific governments and leaders to tackle corruption – such as the adoption of the Teieniwa Vision by Pacific Islands Forum leaders in 2021, and the passing of key laws nationally. But the Pacific needs more significant action more quickly to ensure progress translates into results.

What is the Corruption Perceptions Index and why is it important?

The CPI is the most widely used indicator of public sector corruption worldwide.

The Index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. It uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.

The Index is a powerful tool for governments and international institutions to understand and respond to corruption. 

For a country to appear on the index, at least three of the 13 expert assessments and surveys that make up the Index must score it. Very few Pacific countries appear in any of these 13 sources because too few resources are dedicated to researching corruption in the region. Key stakeholders must invest, so there is a more accurate assessment of the situation and what can be done to address corruption – and the other abuses that stem from it.

Corruption prevalent across the Pacific

Fiji has the highest CPI score amongst the four Pacific countries covered at 55. It has undergone a series of significant political events as well as key anti-corruption reforms. However, civic space in Fiji as noted by CIVICUS is obstructed. National laws provide the government with direct oversight of the media and the ability to heavily fine critics, fostering a climate of fear that prevents journalists from exposing corruption. The country experienced its first significant wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.  With ongoing health risks and threats of natural disasters made worse by climate change, the government must work with civil society to develop effective response measures and ensure that Fijians’ rights – and lives – are protected.

Papua New Guinea has shown an upward trend since 2015, but a score of 31 shows the country still needs significant reforms. The current government has demonstrated strong partnership with civil society to initiate key reforms, including legislation to establish an anti-corruption commission and strengthening protections for whistleblowers. However, they have struggled with implementation.  PNG also experienced its first significant wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, but in 2020 used the crisis to strengthen the powers of the Prime Minister and weaken accountability around how emergency funds are spent, creating corruption risks.

Vanuatu and Solomon Islands remain stagnant at 45 and 43 respectively. Solomon Islands passed an anti-corruption law in 2018 but has been slow in enabling a fully functional anti-corruption commission with adequate capacity to prevent and respond to corruption. According to the 2021 Pacific Global Corruption Barometer, Solomon Islanders report corruption issues in both government and businesses. The government must enact reforms to ensure businesses in the country operate responsibly and that communities are meaningfully consulted before awarding public contracts.

Vanuatu in 2021 continued to face political instability – including the previous speaker of parliament resigning amid government disputes. He had declared that the seats of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister and 16 other members of parliament were vacant for missing three sittings of parliament. The government challenged the move, and a hearing of its constitutional application was due seeking his removal before he resigned.  On top of that, the government has yet to effectively implement its 2016 right to information act. To ensure reforms reach across the islands to support and engage remote populations, the government needs to build up stronger partnerships with key civil society organisations.

Looking at other countries in Oceania:

New Zealand (88) is the best performer globally for the fourth consecutive year. Australia ranks toward the top with a score of 73 but has significantly declined by 12 points since 2012.  These high scoring countries are not corruption free. The Pandora Papers investigations showed how high-level officials, oligarchs and billionaires around the world have abused the global financial system and moved wealth offshore to Australia and New Zealand.  To combat transnational corruption, Australia needs to set up an independent national integrity commission, ensure greater enforcement against foreign bribery and strengthen its anti-money laundering laws. This will address corruption risks nationally and across the region to prevent Australian registered businesses operating in the Pacific taking advantage of lax policy.

The way forward

Corruption has run rampant across the Pacific for long enough, but there are clear steps for governments to move forward. Firstly, they must establish key integrity institutions that function effectively. COVID-19 cannot be an excuse to lag on implementation.

Pacific nations must also work with larger countries like New Zealand and Australia to ensure the business community operates responsibly.

To hold leaders to the law, whistle-blower protections are invaluable. They empower citizens to provide accurate and timely information to halt corruption in its tracks, holding power to account to save lives as the region simultaneously faces a pandemic and climate change.

2022 is full of opportunities for the public to hold power to account. Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji will all hold elections, which need to be free and fair so citizens can demand anti-corruption is on the agenda. In addition, the Pacific Islands Forum intends to finalise its 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent this year, where leaders can – and must – establish tackling corruption and guaranteeing rights and freedoms as a regionwide priority.

Mariam Mathew is the Pacific Regional Advisor at Transparency International.