The recently launched “Americas Barometer,” by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), includes important insights about day-to-day corruption burdening citizens in every country in the Western Hemisphere, including the U.S. and Canada.
According to a LAPOP poll, one in five people report that they had to pay at least one bribe to a government official last year. Think about it. That means that more than 200 million of our neighbors in the Americas—20 percent of respondents—have been victims of corruption, forced to pay bribes to bureaucrats just so they will do the jobs they are already receiving a paycheck to do.
What is really significant is how the level of corruption differs by country. The most corrupt country in the hemisphere is Haiti, where 2 out of 3 people (67 percent) surveyed reported they had to pay bribes to government officials. In second and third place we find Bolivia and Ecuador with 45 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
Compare those scores with Canada, the least corrupt country in the Americas with only 3.4 percent of the respondents saying that they were victims of demands for bribes by government officials. Following Canada, LAPOP reports that the U.S. and Chile (in second and third place, respectively) are the next least corrupt.
Corruption also affects countries’ ranking in the annual The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom, especially in Mexico, Peru, and Honduras. People in Jamaica, Uruguay, and Panama are a little better off.
As the Index notes, “corruption erodes economic freedom by introducing insecurity and uncertainty into economic relationships.” But not only does corruption erode economic freedom, it also directly correlates with the level of human development and quality of life in each country.
For example, the average score on the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index for the three least corrupt countries in Latin America is a relatively high 0.772 (on a scale from 0 to 1—the higher the number the more developed the country). The three most corrupt countries, on the other hand, average the lowest level of human development in the hemisphere.
The reasons for these results are straightforward: Corruption translates into more government inefficiencies, more bureaucracy and red tape, more costly steps for private business start-ups, and, in the end, less sustainable job creation. Fewer jobs lead to lower average income and lead to worse outcomes for health and education.
All countries in the Americas need to be vigilant about corruption. The worst need immediate, transparent efforts to create independent and competent judicial systems to improve the rule of law. Without reform, the people who will suffer the most from corruption will be the very ones that the regimes in charge of some of the most corrupt countries say they most want to help—the poor.