Marshall Islands Correspondent

The Marshall Islands Journal covered indictments of two people on bribery charges.
Photo courtesy of the Marshall Islands Journal

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — The Marshall Islands and Palau feature in a new report, “Perceptions of Corruption in Seven Small Pacific Island Countries, issued by Transparency International in the middle of December. It is one of the first corruption reviews by Transparency International in these two U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands as well as the other five surveyed: Tuvalu, Niue, Tokelau (a territory of New Zealand), the Cook Islands and Nauru.

“While the level of corruption varies, many recognize that it is an ongoing and significant challenge across the Pacific Island region,” said the report that summarizes the response of more than 200 island residents in Palau and the Marshall Islands.

Although there have been expert and regional corruption assessments produced in the past decade, “there have been no comprehensive quantitative surveys of ordinary citizens’ views about corruption across the region,” said the new TI report. “This makes the findings of the Pacific Global Corruption Barometer … set out in the present report particularly important. Given the role that citizens play in resisting and, at times, supporting corruption, filling this gap in our knowledge is critical.”

In a “control of corruption index in the Pacific,” TI rates American Samoa the best with a 95% rate and Papua New Guinea the worst with 17%. The Marshall Islands is ranked at 55%, which is the overall average for the region, while the Federated States of Micronesia is second best next to American Samoa at 76%.

Interestingly, the report ranks Palau second worst, just above PNG, at 36% (along with Nauru) despite Palau having an active ombudsman and special prosecutor’s office, which routinely prosecutes government officials. Neither FSM nor the Marshall Islands have these anti-corruption mechanisms in place.

The new report said that while a 2021 Worldwide Governance Indicators report ranked the Marshall Islands slightly better than the average for control of corruption in the Pacific, a 2021 Freedom House report said corruption is a “chronic problem” in the Marshall Islands. “Over half of the 261 respondents from RMI felt the same way: 59 percent said that government corruption was a big problem,” the report said.

Just two weeks prior to release of this TI corruption report, two naturalized Marshallese citizens pleaded guilty in New York to bribing Marshall Islands leaders in support of an initiative to carve out special zone in this western Pacific nation for investment free of most national government oversight.

Two-thirds of the people surveyed in RMI in 2021 said they “believed corruption had increased over the past 12 months,” the report said. Over half of the corruption survey respondents said they “believe that Members of Parliament were involved in corruption, with many also concerned about corruption in local government…”

The report continued, “Of the 94 percent of respondents who had engaged over the past year with any of the six select government institutions and services, 63 percent said they had had to pay a bribe, give a gift or do a favor in order to get the needed assistance or services.”

The report points out that the RMI has established a number of laws designed to outlaw corruption and associated behavior, and government organizations provide a level of oversight and response to complaints. The TI report points out, for example, that the Marshall Islands auditor general has highlighted an increasing number of complaints about alleged illegal behavior by government officials. “Many respondents were positive in their appraisal of such efforts,” the report said. “Over half said that the government was doing well in fighting government corruption. However, only 11% thought that officials who engage in corruption frequently face appropriate action against them.”

The report added, “While some assessments suggest that RMI has done quite well in containing corruption, many respondents believed corruption was a serious problem and getting worse. Politicians were most likely to be associated with corruption, while experiences of corruption in the public sector were high. Electoral corruption and sextortion were of particular concern. While many were satisfied with the government’s response, few believed that those who engaged in corruption were appropriately sanctioned.”

The report suggested “introducing an independent and strongly resourced ombudsman” to help address some of these concerns. “Efforts should also focus on corruption during elections and the gendered dimensions of corruption.”

   For Palau, the TI report said 42% of the 255 respondents thought that government corruption was a big problem. “Moreover, many were concerned that corruption was getting worse, with 40 % believing that corruption had increased over the past year.”

The report noted that Palau’s Office of the Special Prosecutor in particular has been at the forefront of investigations into high-profile corruption cases, including into former President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr. for violation of the country’s Code of Ethics. Remengesau was eventually fined for his wrongdoing.

“Recently, high-ranking officials (in Palau) have faced corruption charges and some convictions have been recorded,” the report noted. “They include former Ngiwal governor Ellender Ngirameketii, who was found guilty on a number of charges, including six counts of misconduct in public office and six counts of code of ethics violations.”

In line with international assessments (Freedom House, 2021), most respondents said that the government was doing well in fighting corruption. “However, only 18%  said officials who engage in corruption frequently face appropriate action against them,” the report concluded.

According to its website, Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Helpdesk is supported by the European Commission. The U4 Helpdesk is operated by the Transparency International Secretariat in collaboration with the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre based at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. U4 has a variety of funding sources. mbj