A Year After Corruption Ignited the Arab Spring, Do Citizens Have a Greater Voice?

A year ago, Tunisians were in the process of bringing down a corrupt leader. It all started on 17 December 2010 when Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the building of the local officials who had abused him. With that extraordinary act of protest, the Arab Spring began. Driven to despair after his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart -- bought on credit -- was confiscated by the police, Bouazizi expressed his refusal to submit to those who abuse their power the only way he could, by paying the supreme price. If only there had been another way for him to make the powerful aware of his plight. One year later, several governments across the Middle East have been toppled by demonstrators decrying rampant corruption but still the question remains: Was his tragic sacrifice in vain? The Arab Spring showed the power of ordinary people who demand accountability from their leaders. It showed what happens to leaders who fail to protect their people from corruption. Four Arab leaders who between them ruled for 150 years have been toppled. Ministers, businessmen and officials across the Arab world have been put on trial for corruption. However, in many countries in the Arab world and beyond, we continue to see protests met with violence. The media are still censored. Civil society groups are still repressed. In Egypt a fresh round of protests in November against the current military rule reveals deep misgivings about just how much tangible change has taken place. And corruption continues to ruin lives. People still miss out on jobs and public services for lack of knowing the right people, or paying a bribe at the right price. The lesson is that corruption will not go away overnight. Last week Transparency International published our annual ranking of countries by perceptions of public sector corruption, from petty bribes at the registry office to conflicts of interest in high office. Out of 183 countries, Tunisia (73rd), Egypt (112th), Libya (168th) and Yemen (164th) all fared poorly. These scores tell a story of public sectors that are deeply unaccountable to ordinary people. Indeed, in 2010, our research on the Arab region described nepotism and patronage that made life intolerable for those who did not benefit from them. They warned that even when anti-corruption laws existed, the people and institutions that hold power over people are rarely held to account. These problems were there before the Arab Spring -- hence the protests. Only root and branch reform of public institutions -- from central government to local authority -- will bring lasting change. New leaders hoping to begin a new corruption-free era can learn from many countries that rank above them in our index. The leading countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, such as Botswana, Hong Kong and Chile, have shown that sustainable, long-term efforts to promote transparency at the heart of government will deliver, even against a historic background of war and poverty. In 1998 Festus Gontebanye Mogae took over a Botswana plagued by poverty, unemployment, the legacy of conflict and chronic disease. Guided by a code of conduct he defined as "prudent, transparent and honest use of national resources," he doubled per capita income in just over a decade. Right at the top of our corruption perception index come New Zealand and the Nordic countries. While none are perfect, they have shown that the path to stability and prosperity leads through an active, participative citizenry who are not afraid to raise their voice when they see leaders fail to act in the public interest. When citizens are silenced, fraud and corruption from the financial sector to building safety, go unchecked with disastrous consequences for economy and society. This year the world has been rocked by a Tunisian fruit seller who refused to let his voice go unheard. In Morocco, Transparency International this week recognized another fruit-seller who stood up price-fixing in food markets. His case is stuck in court, but his voice has at least been heard and as a result authorities are under pressure to break their silence. People who stand up to corruption can make a difference. That more people, and governments, now accept this truth will be the enduring legacy of Bouazizi's tragic sacrifice.