Public corruption is holding back Asia's rising economies and could pose serious challenges for those countries, Transparency International warns in a new report.

The Berlin-based group released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index today, and it gave more than half of Asia Pacific countries a score of less than 40 on its scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The two most populous countries in the region, China and India, got scores of 40 (for a rank of 80th) and 36 (94th), respectively.

Transparency International argues that corruption holds countries back from dealing with issues related to poverty, climate change and economic crisis -- money meant to tackle these problems instead goes elsewhere. The group, in a document laying out its five-year strategy, says corruption can make "free education" too costly for the poor, it can mean medicines sold to the most vulnerable are counterfeit and it allows the trafficking of women by criminal networks.

Corruption is bad in its own right, but it also introduces and exacerbates lots of other problems. It makes government less efficient, which is especially problematic for rising economies that need to be careful about managing growing public costs. It also makes the authorities less responsive to public needs, something that non-democratic or newly democratic governments sometimes struggle with anyway. These pose particularly significant problems for East Asian countries, which Transparency International warns could see their rise slowed by unusually high rates of corruption.

Srirak Plipat, regional director of Transparency International's Asia Pacific Department, calls for the Chinese government to take a holistic approach to fighting corruption, bringing citizens into the effort. On India, he writes that the country's inability to deal with corruption large and small has kept it  from lifting more of its people out of poverty, increasing gender equality and reducing infant mortality.

Determining how corrupt a country is can be a bit of a challenge; measuring bribes or prosecutions can tell more about the aggressiveness and effectiveness of the media or the courts in that country. So Transparency International compiles a variety of surveys and assessments from institutions that examine governance and business climate(PDF) to come up with its ranking; some countries aren't in the rankings because there's not enough information on them. The index tells us how corrupt countries are perceived to be, in the view of experts.

Also in the report:

Syria had the biggest fall from 2012 to 2013, dropping nine points to a score of 17 and rank of 168. TI public relations manager Chris Sanders writes of the country:

A raging civil war has stopped good governance in its tracks, while state involvement in business through informal networks has contributed to an erratic economy. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets.

Spain also didn't fare particularly well, falling six points to a score of 59 (40th). Countries in Western Europe have a heavy presence at the top of the rankings; Denmark is tied with New Zealand at the top, with a ranking of 91. Also in the top 15: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium. Another European country with a struggling economy, though, actually climbed in the rankings: Greece still has the lowest ranking in the European Union, but its score climbed to 40 from 36, possibly helped by an anti-corruption strategy and high-profile prosecutions of ex-officials.

The United States ranked 19th, tied with Uruguay with a score of 73. That puts the United States behind Singapore, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Barbados, Hong Kong and Japan, in addition to the Western European countries.

At the bottom of the rankings: Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia, each scoring eight points. Read about the probable removal of Kim Jong Un's once-powerful uncle from his positions, and about struggles in Afghanistan with repairing and replacing vital equipment for the country's army and allowing the economy to move forward.