As Go the Geysers, So Goes Government
Craggy basalt lava fields and columns of steam rising from a volcanic landscape-these are the images that greet visitors at the Reykjavik airport. But in addition to being known for the unspoiled beauty of its glaciers, geysers, and ice-carved waterfalls, Iceland enjoys a similarly pristine reputation for government.
As measured by Transparency International's 2006 International Corruption Perceptions Index, this island nation tied with Finland and New Zealand as the least corrupt nation among 163 countries in the survey. By comparison, the United States came in at 20.
What's Iceland doing right? The top countries, says Transparency International CEO David Nussbaum, "are getting a series of things in place: the sense of the social contract between the government and the people," as well as "a culture of accountability" within the society and its institutions.
News junkies. Add to that list Iceland's informed, educated public, says Olaf Olafsson, chairman of the Icelandic-American Chamber of Commerce. "The average Icelander consumes international, national, and local news. You go to local hot tubs or swimming pools"-among the country's most popular gathering spots-"and people will be talking about politics."
Political involvement also shows in the high percentage-87.7-of those who exercised their right to vote in Iceland's 2003 parliamentary elections. That Parliament, by the way, first began meeting in A.D. 930. It's a history that has helped ingrain democratic ideals, such as accountability and transparency.
Iceland's compact size tends to put a further damper on wrongdoing. "It's a small society, so it's tough to get away with things without being noticed," Olafsson says. And because of Iceland's relative isolation, many contemporary residents can trace their family histories to the Vikings. So not only does everyone seem to know everyone today-they may well have known one another for generations.
They're also speaking nearly the same language. Again, because of its isolation, Iceland remained immune to outside influences on its language for centuries. The result is that contemporary Icelandic is nearly identical to that spoken 1,100 years ago.
Yet, even with all that, leading Icelandic businessman Jon Asgeir Johannesson, chairman of Icelandic venture capital group Baugur, has been fighting fraud charges in the Icelandic courts. First cleared on all counts in March 2006, Johannesson was re-charged a month later. Now, according to the Times of London, an anonymous letter is making the rounds alleging there's nothing more to the entire case than a political grudge.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.