This week, Liberia surged from position 91 to position 75 in the Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International. In West Africa, only Ghana and Cape Verde ranked higher. This is good news for Liberians and boosts the country's application to the US Millennium Challenge Account, which will decide next week whether Liberia is worthy of its support.
There has also been progress elsewhere in Africa. Botswana and Rwanda are seen as some of the least corrupt countries in the region, in positions 30 and 50 respectively. Malawi climbed from position 100 to 88 and Sierra Leone, where corruption was a major issue in the election just gone, from 134 to 123.
Liberia's success is not a one-off: the country has made tremendous progress since President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf launched the fight against corruption in 2006. Back then, Liberia was ranked among the 20% most corrupt African countries. Now its score is in the top 20% in Africa: on a par with Italy and China, and significantly higher than India or Greece.
However, ordinary Liberians could be forgiven for feeling a little left out. Transparency International measures perceptions of corruption by international investors. The Corruption Perceptions Index aggregates surveys by the African Development Bank, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and Global Investor. Their opinion is important: in a small economy that depends on foreign investment, perceptions shape reality. But the reality of foreign investors is remote to most Liberians.
In fact, it is common to hear in Liberia that corruption "hasn't gone away" or "is getting worse". What explains this apparent contradiction? Part of it is that as the state expands its reach, Liberians are interacting with it more. There are police, teachers and health workers in places in rural Liberia where a few years ago there were none. As memories of Liberia's civil war recede, citizens are - rightly - demanding more of their government, and becoming less inclined to give 'gifts' to secure services they should be getting for free.
At the political level, Liberia's raucously free media jumps on every allegation of corruption. Some of these stories are founded on serious investigation. For example, Global Witness recently documented that rural communities were signing away their forests to international logging companies for a pittance. However, most of the allegations are never documented and are eventually retracted, fuelling cynicism about politics and the media alike.
The outrage that many Liberians feel about corruption is likely to persist until they see evidence of improvement. There are useful examples to draw on. Transparency International Kenya has used surveys to estimate the number and value of bribes paid by Kenyans to secure different services. In India, ipaidabribe.com has named and shamed government offices that demand bribes. A series of audits in Nigeria have quantified the cost of corruption in the oil sector, in dollars diverted and tax revenue foregone. None of these measures are perfect, but they get beneath the surface that perceptions data only scratches.
In welcoming Liberia's strong performance, President Sirleaf noted that: "The improvement in perception reflects government’s actions to build strong institutions, make more information available to citizens, and deal robustly with reported incidents of corruption." It may have helped that countries in Europe and North America have started to prosecute their own companies for bribing foreign officials. The UK for example, significantly strengthened its anti-corruption legislation last year with the new Bribery Act coming into force, which puts further pressure on companies not to pay bribes in foreign markets.
Liberia has indeed come a long way. The challenge now is to understand how Liberians experience corruption and enlist them in the fight against it.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.