By Niklas Kossow

At Social Science Works we are interested in giving second opinions on research, to help enable policy makers make informed choices about policy and empower decision makers to make the best possible use of science research. In this blog, Social Science Works associate Niklas Kossow looks at corruption rankings and takes on the idea that, as Ilia Xypolia argued in The Conversation, that corruption rankings are ‘one of the greatest deceptions of the era’. To read the original article in The Conversation, find the link here.

As many concepts in the social sciences, corruption is a strange beast. Researchers find it hard to agree on one common definition of it and they find it even harder to measure it. Yet, we do have several corruption indicators that approximate how big of a problem corruption is in different countries across the world. Commonly these are perception based indicators, meaning indices that rely, in one way or another, on the assessments of country experts. Depending on the indicator the data sources and experts that are consulted differ and so, of course, does the quality of the index. Being based on perceptions, one flaw is naturally inherent to all common corruption measures: subjectivity. In a recent article Ilia Xypolia from the University of Aberdeen strongly criticized these corruption indices and called their use nothing short of hypocritical and likened it to a campaign driven by multi-national cooperations.

The author is right to point at the shortcomings of perception based indicators. They are reliant on assessments of faceless experts, often overlooking facts on the ground and are often rewarding efforts to uncover corruption (a positive development) by rating a country more negatively, as the true scale of corruption within a society becomes visible. She rightly points out that academia is making efforts to find more objective, actionable measurements. The latest attempt was published as the Index of Public Integrity by the Hertie School of Governance early this month.

My problem with her contribution stems from the inaccuracies that Xypolia brings forward. Take the assessment of the current corruption measurements for instance. Rightly described as the most influential indicator, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) is, however, not put together by relying on the opinions of businessmen. Rather, it relies on a variety of surveys that assess corruption, and combines them differently, according to availability for each country. A similar procedure is presented by the Worldwide Governance Indicator on the Control of Corruption, which is published annually by the World Bank. Looking at the result of the indices, the author is quick to highlight the relationship between (the lack of) democracy and corruption, ignoring the fact that many researchers have shown that the correlation between democratisation indices (such as the (in)famous Freedom House reports) and corruption indices is far less convincing than is often believed. She also ignores that countries like Singapore or Qatar are actually doing rather well in the CPI ranking whereas very few people would be so brave to call them democratic.

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The difficulty of highlighting the actual make-up of the index is, of course, that the attribution of results to the influence of Western businesses does not work that easily anymore. Transparency International is described as being funded by the World Bank and multi-national companies. While they do fund part of TI, the truth is that 80-90% of TI funding comes from a variety of governments and very much differs from country to country, as the individual country chapters cooperate with the international secretariat in Berlin, but largely work independently from it. This perspective also leaves apart that, in a way, the foundation of TI resulted from a conflict of its founder with the World Bank itself. All this, of course, makes the background and funding of corruption indicators much more heterogeneous, posing a difficulty to the argument of the author. Showing a more diverse picture of the corruption rankings obviously also puts in the question the idea that these rankings are used for Western democracy promotion with all the caveats that this ambiguous term entails.

Even if we disregard the factual flaws of the argument, we still find ourselves challenged by the actual question of the article. Does anyone have any right to distinguish between more and less corrupt countries, when corruption is clearly still a problem everywhere? Isn’t it hypocritical to point the finger at fantastically corrupt countries abroad, when your own country is involved in tax evasion and other corrupt schemes? I would argue it is not. There is a different between countries in which corruption is the norm, in which almost all public officials are engaged in corruption and those in which it is still the exception. In Iceland, for instance, the prime minister was ousted when the Panama Papers revealed his offshore accounts. In other countries these revelations barely raised an eyebrow. David Cameron was put under pressure by the revelations of the papers, even though they only concerned his father. The truth that we have to face is that in many “fantastically corrupt” countries, public officials and politicians do not need to shift stolen assets abroad – their own country is intransparent and safe enough to make offshore havens unnecessary, as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi points out in a recent article.

Western leaders should not pretend that their countries are free of guilt. Yet, distinguishing more and less corrupt systems does make sense, especially when trying to find national reforms for public integrity system. We do not yet have a perfect measure for corruption and probably never will. To get rid of corruption measurements altogether would, however, mean to throw out the baby with the bath water.

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