19 Jun 2024

Preserving the integrity of corruption measurement

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

You may say it’s a joke, but it’s not. Why, in recent years, do we have such a congestion of corruption measurements, especially among international organizations? For many years, only the World Bank and Transparency International did that and led the field by similar, limited but transparent methods: aggregating all expert scores or organizing public opinion surveys of citizens or firms. Then victimization surveys proliferated—some, like the Mexican one, becoming established—asking people if they were coerced to bribe. In all this interval, we missed objective evidence, but all these perception indicators, which received tons of criticism—some justified, some not—had managed to map the world.

The academia was not idle in this interval. In the last fifteen years, organizations like ERCAS and the Government Transparency Institute, supported by EU and US research funding, produced another generation of objective indicators. These measurements are based on directly observable indicators such as spending, public procurement, digital transparency, and regulation—in the case of the Index for Public Integrity, a full model of enablers and disablers of corruption. These new indicators allow for analytical insights as well as actionability. In the T-index, improvements in government transparency can be observed in real-time, with crowd-sourcing ensuring that no fixing or gaming can take place. Unfortunately, the excellent Doing Business World Bank set of indicators met its untimely end due to undue influence from countries seeking to improve their reputation, such as Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and China, to name the most notorious.

You would say that this is a positive trend, but of course when reputation by governance is concerned, it never really is. China, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Saudi Arabia have been the top funders of the internationally endorsed Anticorruption Academy in Vienna (IACA) which has struggled in the last years to create a new measurement of corruption. The ball and the Saudi funding have now passed to the UNDP, an organization with no experience in the field.

Yesterday I had to answer at IACC in Vilnius (in a panel with the World Bank, UNODC, and Transparency International) a question from the Saudi Arabia representative. Why am I an opponent of corruption measurements sponsored by their government? Why did I decline the repeated invitations from this country, and others, to join in any capacity and advise instead of criticizing and boycotting their effort?


18 June, 2024, The International Anti-Corruption Conference, Vilnius

The answer is very simple. Only an organization with no interest can do corruption rankings, and one that is academically fit and economically autonomous, not depending on the funds of patrimonial countries seeking to improve their non-improvable reputations, especially when it happens that their internal critics may be discretionarily arrested, kidnapped, or eventually killed. The world has enough academics, able to win transparently enough research funds—both ERCAS and GTI just won, with their partners, 6-million-euro research grants which do not depend on the favor of any government, just on anonymous academic reviewers.

Why don’t you leave academics do their rankings without funding them? Surely it would be more rewarding than the elusive quest of a measurement to make you look better? No need for gifts to get objective treatment from us!  Looking better is really up to you. You do the reforms, and we shall provide the mirror. If they are the right reforms, and they have an impact, you will discover that your reputation will improve eventually.