What does the Corruption Perceptions Index tell us about corrupt countries?

Professor Robert Barrington looks at Transparency International (TI)’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and questions why commentators use the term ‘corrupt country.’

Photo by Fernando Arcos/pexels

What does the annual CPI, launched this week, tell us about corrupt countries? Absolutely nothing. There are two reasons for that.

First, the CPI is an index of perceptions of corruption in the public sector. It tells us nothing about the private sector, or the role of financial institutions or professional enablers – usually located in countries with good CPI scores – in facilitating global flows of corrupt capital. The CPI does what it says on the tin: it is an index of perceptions of public sector corruption. That’s what it aims to measure, and not the many other aspects of corruption that there are.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is simply no such thing as a ‘corrupt country’. Yet the term is widely used.  For example, Boris Johnson, when accused of corruption as Prime Minister, responded “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country”. You can guarantee that many of the headlines around this year’s CPI results, as in past years, will be along the lines ‘Most corrupt countries in the world revealed‘. Likewise, many lists will appear, based on the CPI, with headings such as ‘These are the world’s most – and least – corrupt countries’ – that  particular example being from the World Economic Forum. Even TI itself has in the past fallen into the trap of using such terminology.

What is wrong with the notion of  a ‘corrupt country’? Well, it is a term that has no meaning – it is just a convenient shorthand, which no sensible commentator on corruption, or student, should ever use. It implies that a country is itself corrupt. What does that really mean? Assuming a country is composed of citizens, institutions, sectors and government – precisely which of these needs to be corrupt, and how much, for it to be a ‘corrupt country’? Does the corruption extend to all, or the majority of its citizens? Or is it that the public and private sector and government institutions are all or mostly corrupt, but not the citizens? Or is the claim that there is just a lot of corruption everywhere, such that it is part of the country’s DNA?  

In reality, life is unfailingly very much more complex than an entire country being corrupt. There can be differences between regions; between specific institutions, where one Minister is a reformer and the other is on the take; between public and private sector; and most often, between a government elite that is harvesting money for its own purposes, and the citizens and companies from whom it is harvested. Other surveys show that it is those citizens who in general feel most strongly about the injustices of the corruption of which they are the primary victims, illustrating why it is inaccurate to label them as constituting a ‘corrupt country’ without differentiating the victims from the perpetrators. 

This might sound like pedantry, but it’s actually quite important. If you believe that tackling corruption successfully requires a good understanding of the problem, then the blanket notion of a ‘corrupt country’ is likely to be a very poor starting point. For instance, if a country is corrupt, it might seem reasonable to avoid sending it aid or (in the case of Ukraine) weapons. Whereas if the health ministry is corrupt, you might try to channel aid directly to citizens, or if a particular branch of the military is corrupt, you might want to focus arms transfers to other branches.

There are alternative descriptions that give much better insights, and do not write off in two words a country’s citizens or culture as being inherently corrupt. For the CPI itself, perhaps the best would be:

‘There are high rates of public sector corruption in country x’ (or for the pedant, ‘experts perceive there to be high rates of public sector corruption in country x’).

Of course, this does not take into account variances in the public sector, or the blurred lines in some economies between public and private sectors – for example outsourced public services – but it does reflect the CPI’s results more precisely than saying  ‘x is a corrupt country’.

At a certain point, if most of a public sector is thoroughly corrupt, it is a fair conclusion that this is reflective of extensive, perhaps systemic, corruption in government (for example, Russia). There is no obvious cut-off point in the CPI scores at which this can definitively be said to be the case, and of course it does not reflect the fact that there might be a recently-elected reforming government (for example, Ukraine). But for those at the lower end of the CPI scores, sensible alternatives to ‘corrupt country’ might be:

‘The government of country x is characterised by corruption’ – or in more extreme cases, ‘the government of country x is systemically corrupt’.

What else might be said? About the CPI, perhaps not much: it is a blunt instrument whose purpose has moved over time more towards communication than analysis. But importantly, the CPI is only one of several indices and surveys. In fact, the field of corruption measurement is having a bit of a renaissance, not least due to the work of my colleague Liz David-Barrett and a UNODC project led by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. One obvious conclusion is that given the number of sources that are now available, it is possible to get a better insight by considering several sources together. From which you might be able to say:

‘There is a high prevalence of corruption in country x’ or

‘There are corrupt(ed) institutions in country x, such as the police or judiciary’ – or ‘the police and judiciary are institutionally corrupt in country x’.

This latter example takes us from the country level to specific institutions, and in terms of a real understanding of the problem of corruption, the more granular, the more helpful. The CPI-style approach does tend to lock us into looking broad brush at country level, however accurate you try to make your terminology.  

The CPI has been around for nearly thirty years, and during that time has attracted a great deal of criticism – while still being the most widely-used and often-cited index of corruption. To its credit, TI has responded to much of the criticism, especially around methodology and transparency of the underlying data. In its early years, when it was the only game in town for corruption measurement, it is entirely understandable that both TI and others should use it as a proxy for a country’s overall levels of corruption. And where it is a government that is corrupt, that falls within most general definitions of the public sector, and it is easy to see why a government may have been taken as representative of the whole country. But time and thinking have moved on, and perhaps the most relevant remaining criticism of the CPI relates to how it is misapplied, with loose terminology such as ‘corrupt country’ exemplifying how an index that is actually doing one thing can so easily be misrepresented as something else.

At minimum, TI has a responsibility to avoid adding fuel to the fire of misrepresentation, as Harvard professor Matthew Stephenson periodically points out, by being punctilious in its own analyses and press releases. But perhaps more could also be done by TI and others to make sure that the CPI is used and cited based on what it says, not on the basis of what it does not say.

So when you look at the headlines, and lists, and press releases around this year’s CPI, don’t slip into lazy thinking such as ‘country x is more corrupt than country y’ or ‘z is obviously a corrupt country’. I’ve no doubt that I have done that myself at times, but nobody should be doing so – we stop and think about what that really means, and then speak or write words that match the meaning rather than using a shorthand that is ultimately meaningless.

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