Lesotho government’s new-found political will is welcome, but can it solve endemic corruption?

One of the reasons a national budget speech is such an important occasion is that it reflects the mood, goals and priorities of the administration. A budget speech transforms political rhetoric and campaign promises into concrete policies that address practical problems. In Lesotho, and other developing countries, the speech provides a benchmark against which development partners can gauge how far politicians are prepared to go, to literally put money where their mouths are.

Last week, Lesotho’s newly appointed minister of finance, Dr Moeketsi Majoro, a former employee of the IMF, made his maiden budget speech, and emphasised once again the new government’s commitment to the fight against corruption and wasteful spending. The four political parties in this coalition government — the second in three years — campaigned on a strong anti-corruption ticket.

Depoliticising bureaucracy and strengthening procurement regulations are some of the measures that the new administration is lining up to tackle endemic graft. Perhaps, the clearest sign of commitment to anti-corruption is the 40 per cent increase in the budget of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO).

These efforts are commendable.

Old wine, new bottles?

But, it is not the first time Lesotho’s finance minister acknowledges extensive venality in the public service and commits the government to rooting it out. One wonders why we should be optimistic about the government’s fresh commitment to tackling corruption.

In the budget speech of 2005, for instance, the finance minister and former employee of the World Bank, Dr. Timothy Thahane, announced that the government was “committed towards identifying and removing public service delivery bottlenecks and rooting out corruption” (see here). The following year, the minister made a further commitment “to reduce the scope for systemic corruption at all levels of government”.

As many waited for Thahane to lead the way, corruption charges were, instead, filed against him, his Principal Secretary (i.e the chief accounting officer in the ministry of finance) and a local businessman. They were accused of defrauding the government of 19 million Maloti (approximately 1,500,000 US Dollars).

Further to that, under Thahane’s watch Lesotho was confronted with one of its biggest corruption scandals as it emerged that a $30 million deal with an Israeli company to supply electronic national documents was not above board. An Israeli court later found this company guilty of bribing a foreign official, and fined it NIS 4.5 million ($1.15 million).

Tim Thahane and others before him failed to rein in corruption under highly favourable conditions of a dominant party system. During this time, the stability of government did not depend much on the use of ‘patronage’ as it will under the coalition government that Majoro finds himself leading.

Majoro and his colleagues may be eager to avoid the mistakes and failures of the past administrations, but the political realities on the ground will weigh heavily on their good intentions and the drive to tackle corruption.

Political imperatives over good intentions

The four-party coalition government has too many people queuing up for the disbursement of patronage of one form or other. There is a frightening legion of young people with college qualifications looking to the government for decent jobs. Some have been waiting for close to a decade to find meaningful employment in the civil service — Lesotho’s biggest employer. They are hungry and their patience has run out.

Yet as qualified as they are, their large numbers relative to job opportunities make it difficult to rely on merit alone for recruitment into the public service. The allocation of job and other resources on particularistic criteria will inevitably complicate the efforts to fight the high levels of nepotism, favouritism and cronyism (see here for shocking details on nepotism in Lesotho).

The unemployment crisis has forced many into the business sector. Yet, economic stagnation and the declining business opportunities mean that many of those trying their luck in the private sector increasingly rely on doing business with government through the tendering process. Many will not qualify for tenders if procurement regulations are strictly enforced.

Coupled with an extremely high inflation rate, the stagnant salaries in the public service provide strong incentives for public officials to continue tendering for government contracts — a practice that has brought Lesotho’s procurement process into serious disrepute. It will not be easy to convince most public officials, including chief accounting officers, to support whatever measures are put in place to eliminate such tender irregularities.

All coalition partners — particularly the newly formed Alliance of Democrats (AD), whose leader and the new deputy Prime Minister has prime ministerial ambitions — are eager to build their base and compete effectively in the next general election. Where the link between a political party and society is weak, and is currently the case with the AD, patronage, clientelism and corruption become integral elements of party building.

Members of parliament will continue to be under pressure to fulfil social expectations to cater for the personal needs of their constituents. One only needs to spend a few minutes in rural communities or on popular social media platforms to understand the expansive role that Basotho assign to their representatives. There is a widespread expectation that an MP must intervene personally, and using his/her own funds, in the personal problems of constituents. This creates a strong incentive for MPs to get involved in all manner of illicit dealings to meet the ever-growing financial demands that attend these expectations.


Unfortunately, the ‘political will’ is not enough to tackle corruption where it is endemic and performs the basic function of maintaining political stability. The current economic and political climate is not conducive for a serious assault on grand corruption. We should brace ourselves for more allegations of nepotism, fraud and kickbacks.

By Moletsane Monyake

University of Sussex


Data, Software and Talent: Turning Open Data into a useful Anti-Corruption Tool for Africa

For years, campaigners have lauded the benefits of transparency as a policy solution to corruption. That message was gradually refined as researchers noted that transparency was effective as an anti-corruption tool only if it led to increased accountability, and that this only happened in conditions where the overall institutional environment was conducive.

More recently, open data – data about the activities of governments and public officials which can shine light on whether they perform their duties with integrity – has again been paraded as the variant of transparency that will make all the difference.

Again, it quickly became clear that open data only helps detect and deter graft in certain conditions: first, the data must be good quality, second, there must be a group of interested and informed users, and third, there must be a way of getting the results heard, investigated, and acted upon. If open data is to work as a global anti-corruption tool, that implies a major effort to improve the quality of data that governments publish, empower actors to use the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings.

In the last few months I have been involved in a project, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower an important but often overlooked set of potential users – African mathematicians, whose statistical analysis skills are key to forming an evidence base for future public policy-making. The project collected new procurement data, developed a new software tool for analysis and trained the maths students in how to look for corruption indicators.

Aid and National Procurement

The data concern how aid money is spent through national procurement systems. As part of the British Academy/DFID-funded project that Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann and I are working on, Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-funded Procurement, we have collected contract-level data from three major donors. This was a lengthy exercise, involving scraping data from a number of disparate documents and files, checking for missing data and resolving numerous irregularities. Yet we now have a dataset comprising more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years.

The tools are analytical and statistical. We utilise a method developed by Mihály to identify ‘red flags’ in the data which might be indicative of corruption risks in the procurement process – that is, ways in which a supposedly open competition can be manipulated to favour a certain company. However, using the method to analyse data requires statistical skills and software. Both are in short supply in Africa – mathematicians have not traditionally received a very strong training in statistical methods, and cash-strapped universities have generally lacked the resources to fund and update licences to software packages that facilitate such analysis.

Maths as Anti-Corruption

The African Maths Initiative (AMI), a Kenyan NGO that works to create a stronger mathematical community and culture of mathematics across Africa, has helped to solve this problem by developing a new open-source software for statistical analysis. Based on the widely used programme, R, their package provides a ‘front end’ that makes R much more user-friendly and accessible. The software, R-Instat, has been funded through crowd-sourcing and developed in cooperation with African mathematicians. Still in development, it is on track for launch in July this year. In the meantime, we have worked with AMI to develop a menu on R-Instat that can be used specifically for analysing procurement data and identifying corruption risk indicators.

So, we have the data, we have the tools, what about the skills? For data to be useful as an anti-corruption tool, we need to bring together two groups: people who understand how to analyse data, and people who understand how procurement systems can be manipulated to corrupt ends – the latter is where I came in. In March I visited AIMS Tanzania, an institute that offers a one-year high-level Master’s programme to some of Africa’s best maths students. In a one-day workshop, I spent the morning teaching the maths students about how academics study corruption. We took our time with getting definitions right to make sure everyone was on the same page, and then launched into the ways in which the procurement process can be corrupted and how that might manifest in certain red flags, such as there being only one bidder for a contract. The students were a great pleasure to work with – highly engaged and posing thoughtful questions that related to their own experiences of corruption.

But the real excitement came in the afternoon when we tried out R-Instat. Students formed teams while David Stern and Danny Parsons, two of the software’s developers, asked them to develop research questions that could be investigated using our World Bank dataset. They could then use R-Instat to run analyses on the data and find answers to their questions. I was on hand to answer corruption-specific queries and suggest what else to look for, while Danny and the R-Instat team members helped them navigate the software.

Data, Statistical Skills and Anti-Corruption Knowledge; A Powerful Mix

This was a corruption nerd’s idea of paradise. Even the simplest analyses revealed interesting patterns in the data. Why did one country’s receipts from the World Bank drop off a cliff one year and never recover? Discussion revealed a few possible reasons: perhaps a change of government led donors to change policy, or the country reached a stage of development where it no longer qualified for aid? The students became more and more motivated as they realised how statistical methods could be applied to identify, understand and solve real-world problems that had seemed intractable and inevitable.

Some of the teams came up with really provocative questions, such as the group who wanted to know whether Francophone or Anglophone countries were more vulnerable to corruption risks. Their initial analysis revealed that contracting in the Francophone countries was more associated with red flags. They developed the analysis to include a wider selection of countries, and maintained broadly similar results. With a little more time, we could have introduced controls for development levels and other factors.

Another group found that one-quarter of contracts let in the education sector in one country had been won by just one company. We investigated further: it was important to look at the value of contracts, too, not just the number. This analysis revealed a yet more worrying result: more than half of total contract value in this sector had been won by three companies, all of which had suspiciously similar names. Again, there might be perfectly innocent reasons for this, but in just a couple of hours, we had a set of preliminary results that pointed up a number of directions for future research. Imagine what we might find with a little more time!

Liz Dávid-Barrett

Revolving doors in Westminster? Forget that, they’ve blown the bloody doors off!

What do we know about the revolving doors in Westminster that we did not know a month ago?

Well, for a start we have seen that for some this is a laughing matter: on 20 March, when an urgent question was tabled in the Commons on his new role as editor of London’s Evening Standard, former Chancellor George Osborne joked that his presence in the House meant missing the newspaper’s deadline.

And why not take a light-hearted view? In 2014 the Telegraph reported that about 180 MPs (or 27 per cent) had more than one job – Osborne just appears to have six.

It’s not unusual

The revolving door phenomenon – the movement of individuals between legislative and regulatory roles and the industries affected by them – is not exclusive to Westminster. Neither is the practice of politicians holding second jobs: some of Europe’s politicians have gone as far as arguing that banning the practice would be a violation of their fundamental rights, although the rules were tightened on lobbying jobs in December 2016.

What’s more – so the argument goes – politicians engaging in second jobs can have a positive impact on politics; it’s a bulwark against the encroachment of the political class, it brings current experience and expertise to their roles, and it keeps them in touch with the real world. And yet, with Guardian analysis showing 20 politicians declaring over £100,000 a year from their part-time engagements, it is perhaps not quite the real world the majority of their constituents live in.

What’s the problem?

Money is important, of course. There’s an implied insult in watching those we’ve elected to represent us finding time to supplement their £74,000 a year salaries, which are over twice the national average for full time employees. And, with 70,000 people in your average constituency, surely they’ve got enough to keep them occupied.

More important still is the potential conflict of interest inherent in representing the public while simultaneously working for industries that can:

(a) Benefit from the insider knowledge, power or connections their politician employees have from serving in parliament; or

(b) Undermine the independence of the media and its ability to hold Westminster to account, for example by employing politicians as columnists or editors.

But is this corruption?

This is certainly not corruption as traditionally defined – as the abuse of public office for private gain – and it’s certainly part of the political culture in Westminster and a practice that many politicians feel entitled to participate in.

And yet, while it may not constitute the classic bribery-based model of corruption, the risks entailed in this practice appear to go a lot further than a simple regulatory loophole or one-off integrity risk.

The need to expand our notion of corruption to encompass practices beyond the quid pro quo exchange of benefits and bribery is widely recognised; from expanding definitions to include “the distortion and subversion of the public realm in the service of private interests” (Bentham 2015) to distinguishing between legal and illegal forms of corruption (Kaufmann and Vicente 2011). Within this field of enquiry, Thompson’s (1995) concept of institutional corruption provides a useful framework for considering the revolving door – or in the case above, the apparent lack of any door at all – as a tendency to undermine the primary purpose or fiduciary duty of an institution.

Rather implying simply the exchange of benefits for private gain, revolving doors are suspected of enabling institutional corruption: “special relationships and social exchanges that may set distorting incentives, improper dependencies and set up consequential conflicts of interests that ultimately divert important public institutions from their intended missions” (Zinnbauer 2015).

Institutional corruption therefore invites researchers to look beyond individual conflicts of interest and take a broader view of political corruption as the ways in which political culture is degraded by a whole range of practices – practices that may look like politics-as usual, but have profound implications for the effective functioning of democratic institutions.

What can we do?

Traditional responses to political accountability are not silent on this issue.

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is currently considering Osborne’s case and it is possible that it will rule his editorship incompatible with his role as a former minister. The UK Committee on Standards in Public Life has also announced a review of its guidance on politicians’ second jobs to consider “reasonable limits” on outside interests.

The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), to which the UK is a state party, similarly has provisions for preventing conflicts of interest under Chapter II (preventive measures): in particular Articles 9 and 12, which consider conflicts of interest declarations and restrictions on the employment of public officials. Westminster abides by these provisions with its Commons Code of Conduct, Ministerial Code and Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The UK is due to be reviewed on its compliance with UNCAC Chapter II in 2018; it will be interesting to see whether recommendations for strengthening regulation in this area will be made.

What more can we do?

If the furore over Osborne’s second jobs has demonstrated one thing it is that political culture in Westminster is out of step: MPs from across the House, including those in Osborne’s own party, have questioned the propriety of his most recent appointment. And the public is not on side either; 60% of people think MPs should be working full time as politicians.

Increased regulation is a default response to accountability weaknesses, but the danger is that we go too far and risk over-regulation, pushback and the emergence of increasingly complex loopholes. If the project to address corruption in all its many forms is to succeed, it must lead us on new paths and to new approaches.

Institutional corruption research has the potential to provide “a more constructive response to demands for greater accountability” by putting “more effort into identifying the less familiar institutional forms and devising remedies appropriate to them” (Thompson 1995; 6). It also names a range of practices that give rise to conflicts and distort democratic systems. If you can name it, you can tame it; and it seems that for far too long practices that may well constitute or nurture institutional corruption have been legitimised as politics-as-usual.

Rebecca Dobson


Donald Trump’s ‘Winter White House’ and definitions of corruption

One of the challenges inherent in teaching courses on corruption and anti-corruption is defining precisely what the term means. And, this week saw me set out on my annual struggle to do exactly that. It’s one of the more tricky sessions on my final year undergraduate option on ‘political corruption’. In many ways, it’s easiest to follow the same logic as that of American Supreme Court Judge, Justice Potter Stewart; in 1964, when presiding over the case of Jacobellis v Ohio, he once noted about pornography that he couldn’t come up with a watertight definition of it, but he certainly knew what it was when he saw it.

That’s a fair starting point for analysing corruption, too; for the most part bribes, nepotism, fraud and such like are recognisable when you see them. But, as you dig deeper it soon becomes clear that conducting any sort of research on a phenomenon you’re defining in “I know it when I see it” terms is very difficult indeed. Corruption analysts have subsequently spent a fair amount of time thinking about what precisely it is that they are unpacking (see here and here for a couple of attempts to do that).

The Definitional Challenge

Traditionally, analysts of political life saw corruption as a move away from a non-corrupt state. Thinkers in Ancient Rome, for example, often saw corruption as a moral aberration. Many early analysts of corruption subsequently had a very broad understanding of the term seeing it, as Carl Friedrich once noted, as “a decomposition of the body politic” that came about through “immoral decay”. A panopoly of behaviours were then put in to this general category, largely in the belief that they were “dysfunctional and hence morally corrupt.”

Over the last 50 years, the focus has narrowed considerably. It had to. Conducting empirical research is impossible without a definition that’s a little more practical. That led to (an at times uneasy) consensus developing around a definition put forward by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. He claimed corruption to be the abuse of a public role for private gain.

Nye’s thinking can be clearly seen in the thinking of Transparency International, the world’s leading anti-corruption NGO, when it talks of “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. The OECD follows suit, labelling corruption as “the active or passive misuse of the powers of public officials (appointed or elected) for private financial or other benefits”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also sings very much from the same hymn sheet (“the abuse of public office for private gains”) as does the World Bank (virtually the same, with just an ‘s’ added to ‘gain’). This understanding of corruption as a deliberate act where an official uses the discretion at her disposal to skew a process or an outcome in her favour is now very widely followed.

Making definitions work in the real world

Labelling something as corrupt therefore means thinking about the constituent parts of a process. More specifically, we need to keep an eye out for four things;

  1. The act needs to be deliberate. Corruption is never accidental. Corruption has nothing to do with incompetence or the inability to fulfill tasks. They may be side-effects, but they don’t define the concept.
  2. The act needs to involve some sort of abuse. The person involved needs to be acting in a way which contravenes accepted understandings of what is and is not appropriate.
  3. Conventional understandings of corruption involve power holders abusing the entrusted power that they are granted.
  4. There has to be some sort of private gain. Often that gain is financial, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be come in a variety of other forms, whether they be status or power-related, or in, say, the provision of sexual services. The private gain can also accrue to friends, family or other organisations known to the corrupted party.

The Winter White House

When talking undergraduates through this it really does help to use real-world examples. And they aren’t generally lacking.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, an almost copybook case appears to have materialised in the USA. Donald Trump’s three weeks at the head of the US executive has hardly been lacking in incident, and that may be the reason that his attitude to and use of ‘The Winter White House’ has been largely overlooked.

Judd Legum, a journalist with ‘Think Progress‘, nonetheless posted a series of tweets on Saturday evening (11 February) about the way the recent visit of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, to the USA panned out. The US President, Donald Trump, and Abe spent time at what Trump has been describing as the ‘Winter White House’. A nice, catchy phrase that has immediately settled in to the journalistic lexicon.

The ‘Winter White House’ is actually a private members club called Mar-e-Lago. Two of Trump’s three weekends as President have been spent there. He dined with Abe there. Donald Trump, furthermore, owns the club. According to Legum, before Trump became President the joining fee used to be $100,000. It’s now $200,000. The club is clearly gaining in profile and is being talked about more than ever before (including, I guess, via blogs like this).

Where’s the problem, you may ask? Well, Mar-e-Lago is now well set to make significantly more money than it might otherwise have done. Plus, anyone who wants to curry favour with the President may think it prudent to frequent establishments that he owns.

Much ado about nothing? Well, no, not really …

Donald Trump’s presidency has already thrown up plenty of things that have got the commentariat talking. In many ways his branding of a club that he owns as the ‘Winter White House’ is understandably not quite at the top of the list of things to be worried about. But, it would appear that there is at the very least circumstantial evidence that he is using his position as the President of the USA to flag up, and indeed re-brand, a private members’ club that he owns. The price of using the club has already doubled. His regular tweets on the subject can only raise its profile.

If the framework outlined above is any help in pinning this traditionally elusive concept down, then Trump is walking on thin ice.  Corruption is a process and defining it involves pinpointing the constituent parts of that process.  Only then can (and indeed should) morals and values enter the discussion. Whatever way you look at this case, there is – at the very least – a case to be made that The Donald’s behaviour warrants plenty of further scrutiny in this regard.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

China’s anti-corruption drive. Small steps made in lots of different directions

How effective is Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive? If you believe the latest data published by anti-corruption NGO Transparency International then progress is indeed being made.  But, it’s slow going.

Trying to measure how much corruption exists is often a fool’s errand.  Corruption comes in many shapes and sizes and takes on a variety of different forms.  This doesn’t stop Transparency International, one of the world’s leading anti-corruption NGOs, from publishing an annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).  Data is taken from a range of surveys on corruption and related issues and put in to what is effectively a poll of polls.  States are then ranked on a scale of 1 (the worst score possible) to 100 (the best).

There are many reasons to be just a little sceptical about the voracity of the data in the CPI, but that doesn’t stop it catching many policy-makers’ eyes.  No one wants to see their country going the wrong way in tables like these.  Chinese policy-makers are unlikely to be any different.

The 2016 data was released on Wednesday 25th January.  It makes interesting reading. Perennial front-runners Denmark and New Zealand again head the pack, coming in joint first with scores of 90.  Finland, Sweden and Switzerland are just behind them and they make up the top five.  Somalia remains bottom of the pile (10 points), with South Sudan (11), North Korea (12) and Syria (13) also doing particularly poorly.  Suriname showed the most improvement, scoring 45 in 2016 as opposed to 36 the year before.  The impact of high profile scandals surrounding the awarding of football world cups no doubt contributed to Qatar being the state that performed worst compared to 2015; down ten points from 71 to 61.

China has traditionally not done particularly well in the CPI.  In 2015 it was in 83rd place (out of 168 countries), scoring 37 out of 100. 2016 reveals some improvement; China’s score rose by three points to 40 and the PRC is now 79th out of 176 countries (8 have been added since the 2015 table was published).  A journey of 1000 miles begins, as the Chinese say, with one small step.

We should nonetheless be wary of taking the data in the CPI too seriously. Coming up with one single number to encapsulate all of China’s corruption problems, for example, would seem like a heroically optimistic undertaking.  How, for example, do you compare petty corruption in rural Guangxi with the grand corruption that might well take place in Beijing? Many would say you can’t.

Be that as it may, if you’re going to get to where you need to go, then you have to be taking steps in the right direction. And this data makes it look like China may indeed be doing just that.  Chinese policy-makers are certainly likely to be pleased to see their score moving upwards.

If, however, we take a closer look at what tends to characterise low corruption countries, then Chinese policy-makers will find much less to be enthusiastic about.  As Transparency International’s Chairman, José Ugaz, noted this week three key things help states genuinely root out corrupt practices; freedom of expression, transparency in all political processes and strong democratic institutions.  Only then will civil society and the media be able to hold those in power to account and only then will the building blocks for a successful anti-corruption fight be in place.

China, of course, displays precisely none of those core traits.  Freedom of expression is strictly limited, decision-making processes are opaque and convoluted, and democratic institutions in the widely-understood sense don’t exist.  The civil society organisations that are permitted have only very narrow room for manoeuvre and the press is there to defend the Communist Party’s line much more than to hold it to account.

Ugaz may nonetheless be simplifying what is actually something that is very complex. Off the shelf anti-corruption tools don’t exist, and the ‘right’ way to tackle corruption will depend on the nature of the challenge to hand.  What works in one place may well have little impact in another and be counter-productive in a third jurisdiction.  The introduction of democratic institutions across Africa in the latter part of the 20th Century, for example, did little to help those states tackle endemic corruption.  Indeed, in some it actually made it worse.  Tackling corruption is subsequently messy, it’s time-consuming and it’s difficult.

Xi’s China will certainly have to find a ‘Chinese Way’ of tackling the corruption evident in the PRC.  That may well involve different ideas and different approaches to what we’ve seen elsewhere.  But that doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. Much of what the CCP has been doing under Xi flies directly in the face of what anti-corruption thinkers tend to believe might work.  Small improvements in a global anti-corruption league table shouldn’t disguise that.



The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI); much ado about nothing?

Earlier today Transparency International, arguably the world’s most well-known anti-corruption NGO, published the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Despite taking plenty of criticism over the years, the CPI has become an integral part of the global anti-corruption discussion. Proponents and critics alike are rarely slow in coming forward to unpack its findings. SCSC Director Dan Hough analyses why the CPI manages to generate such controversy.

Some things are almost guaranteed to prompt a reaction. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is one of those such things. Very few people sit on the fence and claim to be non-plussed by what has become the most well-known attempt to get a feel for how much corruption may plausibly exist. Some commentators use it as an indicator of how much needs to be done, others regard it as an (often forlorn) exercise in quantifying the unquantifiable. Very rarely is anyone ever neutral about it.

Before launching in to any critique of the CPI, it’s worth remembering what exactly the index is and where it has come from. The CPI is a composite index. A variety of data sources are used to create what is in effect a poll of polls on perceptions of corruption in around the world. Data is gathered from surveys of business people and country experts with the aim of measuring perceived levels of public sector corruption. TI provides a detailed account of where its data comes from and also how it uses it, and this is accessible via TI’s own website.

The Results

The CPI was first published in 1995 when it included 41 countries, with New Zealand achieving the best score (i.e. nearest to 10) and Indonesia the worst (nearest to 0). Over the years TI has changed the way it presents and indeed produces its results, with the range of scores now stretching from 100 (no corruption) to 0 (complete corruption).

This year’s CPI included 176 countries (although in 2011 it included as many as 183), with Denmark (90) and New Zealand (90) at the top of the pile and Somalia (10) at the bottom (for the tenth year running). Predictably, the best performing countries share a significant number of characteristics. They are generally open, liberal democracies with a free press. They embrace the notion of transparency, therefore helping citizens see where their hard-earned tax money gets spent. They have independent judiciaries, and all support long-held assumptions about increased accountability leading to lower levels of corruption.

The Scandinavians always do very well, as do countries in western Europe more generally. There are, however, always interesting outliers when compared to their regional peers; Singapore (7th in 2016) regularly appears in the top 10, whilst Botswana (joint 35th) leaves many of its African counterparts in its wake. The countries at the bottom, meanwhile, also have lots in common; leaving North Korea (12) to one side, they are war-torn and bordering on the ungovernable. The fact that South Sudan (11), Syria (13), Yemen (14), Sudan (14) and Libya (15) are immediately above Somalia (10) is evidence of that.

Criticisms of the CPI

The CPI’s prominence has certainly not shielded it from criticism. Indeed, criticising the methodology that underpins the CPI has become a veritable cottage industry (see here, here and here). These criticisms cover a number of issues. To start with, boiling down a country’s corruption troubles to one score is, to put it mildly, methodologically problematic. The type, scope and extent of corruption evident in, say, the city administration of Chicago is likely to be altogether different to that which you’ll find in, for example, rural Arizona. Computing one score to accurately cover such variety is always going to be very difficult. Plus, if a state were ever to register a score of 100, what precisely would that mean? What does a country that apparently has no corruption at all actually look like? Or, conversely, what would a country that scored 0 (totally corrupt) look like? Any discussion of utopias usually ends in disagreement, and it is very likely that that would be the case here.

Furthermore, measuring concepts such as democracy, justice, fairness and indeed corruption is hard at the best of times, but those who do it well acknowledge that their attempts are always approximations. Indeed, statisticians have developed their own language to discuss the problems in getting these measurements right. Even though the CPI’s methodology has undoubtedly got more rigorous over the years, none of this is overtly acknowledged. This has led some researchers to cast doubt on whether this data can be put to any real use at all.

One particular challenge concerns the problem of defining corruption. It is not always clear what respondents actually understand the term corruption to mean. The terms bribery and corruption often appear to be used interchangeably plus responses to the various surveys are very likely to be shaped by – whether directly or indirectly – the assumptions and attitudes of the western business community. That is the case for the simple reason that the majority of people asked have roots in this particular milieu.

The problem of perception

The CPI also measures perceptions of corruption rather than corruption itself. TI regularly and consistently acknowledges that this can be problematic. While knowing more about how citizens perceive a phenomenon certainly has its uses, it is also plausible that perception and reality might differ considerably. As Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson succinctly note “perception indices raise concerns about biases”. These potential biases may well mean that the CPI is actually (and inadvertently) distorting reality, and simply reinforcing stereotypes and clichés.

A further limitation is that the CPI focuses on perceptions of public sector corruption. In other words, the corruption that takes place in and around governments and public servants. It says nothing about corruption in private business. The rigging of Libor (the rate of interest that banks charge each other when lending money between themselves) in Britain, for example, or the VW emissions controversies in the United States (and indeed elsewhere) involve private actors, but they have very real public impacts, whether on the interest rates that people pay on their mortgages or on public health.

Babies and Bathwater

These problems have prompted a significant number of analysts to be quite scathing about the CPI. Steve Sampson, speaking for many in the development studies community, is sceptical of what he regards as “corruption becoming a scientific concept”. Even fellow quantifiers such as Stephen Knack have criticized some of the statistical techniques that TI has employed in the past. Indeed, Anwar Shah and Theresa Thompson leave no one in any doubt as to how grave they think the CPI’s methodological shortcomings are when they state that “closer scrutiny of the methodology … raises serious doubts about the usefulness of aggregated measures of corruption” and “potential bias introduced by measurement errors lead to the conclusion that these measures are unlikely to be reliable, especially when employed in econometric analyses”. Knack’s careful dissection of the CPI raises further significant issues about the independence – in a statistical sense – of the data used, claiming that many of the ‘statistically significant’ changes that TI claims to have uncovered would not in reality be so if “appropriate corrections for interdependence” had been made.

Facing down the criticisms

For its part, TI has certainly tried its level best both to be open about the methodological shortcomings of the CPI (as well as its other corruption indices) and also to adjust them wherever possible. The founder of the CPI index, Johann Graf Lambsdorff, for example, is careful to acknowledge some of the methodological issues inherent in all composite indicators and he is always careful to describe changes in country scores from year to year as changes in perceived corruption rather in actual corruption levels.

TI has also tacitly admitted that the CPI has its limitations by the very fact that it has developed a whole host of other indices – such as the Bribe Payers Index and the Global Corruption Barometer – to look at both the perceptions and experiences of specific groups of stakeholders (ranging from businessmen to households).

And yet, all these criticisms not withstanding, the CPI has done one indisputable thing; it has put the issues of corruption and anti-corruption well and truly on the policy map. As Andersson and Heywood observe;

“We should not underplay its significance in the fight against corruption: its value goes beyond the stimulation of research activity, since the publication of the CPI each autumn has generated widespread media interest across the world and contributed to galvanising international anti-corruption initiatives, such as those sponsored by the World Bank and the OECD”.

Even staunch critics of the quantification of corruption have begrudgingly admitted that “whatever its limitations” the development of the CPI has “undoubtedly done much to promote the anti-corruption agenda”. It is also doubtful that any of the more nuanced indices that both TI itself and other organizations have developed would have seen the light of day if the CPI hadn’t existed before them.

The CPI certainly doesn’t represent the gospel in terms of global levels of corruption. There are plenty of problems with its methodology and subsequently with its findings. But anyone who takes the detailed numbers produced in the CPI too seriously is missing the point. The CPI, for all its sins, has a constructive role to play in helping us think just a little more about how we can better measure corruption and how the battle against corruption can subsequently be taken forward,

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

How much corruption is out there? Well, that depends …

In recent years attempts to measure how much corruption exists have blossomed. Some approaches are based on perceptions of corruption, some on the experiences of individuals. Others use a range of proxies to measure what they argue might be corruption. Subsequently we now have broad aggregate indicators such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions’ Index (CPI) and the Control of Corruption variable in the World Governance Indicators (WGI), as well as much narrower and more focussed indices looking at, amongst other things, state capture, levels of financial secrecy and the quality of the business environment.

One of the most widely-watched of these attempts is TI’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), the latest editions of which were published late in 2016. The development of the GCB in 2003 was an attempt to move the previous emphasis away from seeking the opinions of experts and business leaders and on to ordinary people. The GCB is a public opinion survey that in 2013 asked 114,000 citizens in 107 countries about their “direct experiences with bribery” before going on to detail citizens’ “views on corruption in the main institutions in their countries”. The latest round of the GCB, published in stages through 2015 and 2016, is equally as expansive. The intention of the GCB is to bring ordinary people in to a field where their experiences and perceptions have traditionally been neglected.

Corruption is (apparently) everywhere

The GCB’s findings give plenty of food for thought. In 2013 more than one in four people around the world reported paying a bribe at some point over the last 12 months. The police and the judiciary were apparently the most bribe-prone institutions. Over half the people surveyed regarded their government as acting in the interests of preferred groups rather than the citizenry at large.

The picture was in many ways just as downbeat in the apparently less-corrupt western world. In the 2016 survey, for example, 53 per cent of citizens across 42 European and central Asian countries believed that their government was doing a poor job in fighting corruption. Perceptions were particularly gloomy in Spain (where 80 per cent of people thought their government was doing badly in this regard), Italy (70 per cent) and France (64 per cent).

Alongside data on questions like these, the 2013 survey also revealed that 65 per cent of New Zealanders – a country that is regularly vying for the top spot in the CPI – felt that over the last two years the level of corruption had increased in their country, whilst only 5 per cent felt that it had decreased. The picture was little better over the Tasman Sea in Australia; over the same time period 59 per cent of Australians thought corruption had worsened whereas, like in New Zealand, only 5 per cent thought it had got better. Things were not dissimilar in Europe; 57 per cent of Germans believed that there was more corruption in their country than two years previously whilst only 8 per cent thought there was less. Furthermore, 65 per cent of Germans thought political parties were in general corrupt, 54 per cent thought the same of the media whilst 49 per cent thought civil servants were either ‘corrupt’ or ‘extremely corrupt’. Sobering numbers.

Perception and reality

The GCB has now firmly established itself as an important part of the measurement mosaic. To TI’s credit, it reacted to criticisms of some of its other indices (principally the CPI) by introducing a detailed survey that helps bring people on the street back in to the discussion. Data such as this does nonetheless highlight two further potential problems.

Firstly, sceptics such as Claudio Weber Abramo have illustrated that opinions on corruption as revealed by the GCB “are strongly correlated with opinions about other issues”. It may well be that rather than picking up specific attitudes to corruption the GCB is tapping in to a much larger worldview. Indeed, Weber Abramo claims that the correlation is so strong that we could actually save ourselves the time and effort of measuring public opinion in this area by simply reading across from data on attitudes to things such as human rights and violence.

Secondly, many of the things that we think can help predict levels of perceived corruption (economic development, press freedom and so on) are not good predictors of how much corruption people claim that they personally have witnessed. In other words there is at times a considerable difference between the amount of corruption that people perceive to exist and the amount that they themselves experience. Only 1 per cent of Australians over the 12 months to 2013 paid a bribe, for example, yet 53 per cent think corruption is a problem. In the 2016 survey no Britons (!) reported paying a bribe, yet 57 per cent of people thought that the UK government was doing badly at fighting corruption.

This discrepancy could, of course, be a reflection of citizen awareness of grand corruption that they themselves don’t experience directly. The differences between what people think and what people experience are nonetheless often very large indeed. Furthermore, the size of these differences can differ noticeably from place to place. Such discrepancies are not simply the domain of the GCB; Eurobarometer surveys reveal similar patterns. As Paul Heywood has noted, 74 per cent of European citizens surveyed in the 2012 Eurobarometer surveys believed corruption to be a ‘major problem’ yet only 8 per cent reported any experience of bribery or attempted bribery.

Where to next?

Data on corruption is now in abundant supply. But it would be disingenuous to claim that analysis of it is an exact science. All of the organisations that produce indices (no matter whether they deal with perceptions, experiences or proxies of corruption) point out, to greater or lesser extents, the weaknesses in their respective approaches. TI and other organisations in the data-producing field may, in other words, talk up their respective efforts to quantify aspects of corrupt practice (and who can blame them), but they do also realise that they are dealing in imperfections.

The GCB offers a plethora of interesting information.  But, as with all corruption indices, we should be careful of reading too much into it. Someone, somewhere across the UK, for example, will have paid a bribe over the last 12 months, and just because the GCB didn’t reveal that statistically doesn’t mean that bribery doesn’t exist. The GCB is merely illustrating that everyday bribery is not a common facet of life in the UK whereas it is in other parts of the world.

Corruption is complex, multifaceted and riddled with nuance, and this makes quantifying it very difficult indeed. The GCB can help us spot trends and illustrate the scale and scope of particular types of corruption. But it is just an indicator not a statement of fact. If used carefully, the data can have a constructive role to play in helping us think just a little more about how the battle against corruption can be taken forward. What it shouldn’t be is taken as the gospel truth.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex