Widespread corruption ignited protests this year across the Middle East and in those nations badly shaken by Europe's debt crisis as citizens demanded accountability from their governments, an international watchdog said Thursday.
A movement for greater transparency took on greater momentum in 2011 forcing leaders and bureaucracies to "heed the demands for better government," Transparency International said in its annual corruption perceptions index that scored 183 countries based on perceived levels of public sector corruption.
New Zealand ranks first, followed by Europe's Scandinavian countries Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway, with the United States ranking 24th, two places lower than last year.
Afghanistan _ even ten years after the international community ousted the Taliban and established a massive military and civilian presence there _ comes in 180th of the 183. Only North Korea and Somalia are deemed to be more corrupt.
Other trouble spots fare equally badly in the survey, with Venezuela, Haiti, Iraq , Sudan and Myanmar being _ in falling order _ in the world's ten most corrupt countries.
But it was in the events of the Arab spring and, to a lesser extent, in Europe's debt crisis that the public institutions' lack of transparency and accountability was met with a stern response, the Berlin-based organization said.
"This year we have seen corruption on protesters' banners, be they rich or poor. Whether in a Europe hit by debt crisis or an Arab world starting a new political era, leaders must heed the demands for better government," said Huguette Labelle, head of Transparency International.
Most Arab spring countries "where nepotism, bribery and patronage were so deeply ingrained in daily life that even existing anti-corruption laws had little impact," find themselves in the lower half of the index, it said.
Egypt, where protests swept away the government earlier this year, ranks 112th, troubled Yemen comes in at 164 and Libya _ which has seen its longtime dictator Moammar Ghadafi ousted and killed this year _ occupies a dismal 168th place. Syria, where President Bashar Assad's reign has also sparked months of protests, ranks 129th.
Corruption inherently tends to be a shady business that is not easy to monitor, but Transparency International's corruption perceptions index is widely considered as an international benchmark.
The index uses data from 17 surveys that look at factors such as enforcement of anti-corruption laws, access to information and conflicts of interest.
Countries are scored from 0 to 10, or from highly corrupt to very clean. In 2011, two-thirds of ranked countries scored less than 5.
In Europe, finally, those suffering debt crises _ partly because of public authorities' failure to tackle bribery and tax evasion _ are among the lowest-scoring EU countries, with hard-hit Greece trailing the bulk with a score of 3.4, ranked 80th behind Colombia and El Salvador, it said.