Visualizing the Relationship Between Corruption and Economic Growth Around the World

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How should we think about corruption as it relates to economic growth? Some people argue that corruption helps to “grease the wheels” of an economy, overcoming bureaucratic obstacles to getting things done. Others see corruption as an inherent problem for economic growth because it increases the cost of doing business. We’ll let you decide for yourself, but we combined a unique corruption index with GDP figures to provide an interesting viewpoint.

We combined two datasets for our visualization. First, we took the corruption perceptions index (2017) from Transparency International to rank 180 countries from around the world. The index scores countries from 0 to 100 based on survey responses from experts and businesspeople on their perceptions of corruption. Then we used GDP figures from the World Bank to represent the size of each country’s economy. This approach lets you easily and quickly see the relationship between large economies and corruption levels.

To begin, compare the extremes at the top and bottom of our visualization. Highly corrupt countries scoring 20 and below, like Iraq ($198B), Angola ($124B) and Sudan ($117B) also have tiny economies, whereas Germany ($3.68T), the U.K. ($2.62T) and Canada ($1.65T) are counted as some of the biggest in the world. To make a general statement, developed countries also tend to have lower levels of corruption, but not always. The obvious exception to the rule is China, where an enormous economy worth $12.24T exists next to endemic corruption. Perhaps part of the reason has to do with the sheer size of China’s population, combined with its focus on manufacturing in “special economic zones.” We might just as well call that smart corruption.

Our visual also contains some uncomfortable surprises for Western democracies. Corruption in Italy for instance is comparable to Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Malaysia. A key strategic partner for the US and a member of NATO, Turkey, ranks as one of the most corrupt countries with an economy over $800B. Mention should also be made of Mexico, one of the most corrupt countries in the world with an economy valued at $1.15T. Perhaps President Trump’s new trade agreement, the U.S.M.C.A. or more commonly called a revised NAFTA, will help address some of these problems.

The broader issue at stake behind these numbers is the distinction between true corruption and legitimate activities. Some people might look at the ever-increasing amount of money spent on lobbying in the U.S. as a form of corruption. Is it?

Data: Table 1.1 


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