This Friday, over 190 world leaders are scheduled to gather at the UN headquarters in New York City for the UN Sustainable Development Summit to endorse a new set of “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) to be achieved over the next 15 years. The SDGs are a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but the SDGs are much more expansive and cover a wider range of topics. Most relevant to the anticorruption community is Goal 16 (“Promote Peaceful and Inclusive Societies for Sustainable Development, Provide Access to Justice for All and Build Effective, Accountable and Inclusive Institutions at all Levels”), and in particular SDG “Target” 16.5 (“substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms”).
There seems to be a lot of excitement among anticorruption activists and reformers about Goal 16 and Target 16.5 (see here, here, and here)—but to be honest, I’m not sure why. Indeed, I tend to think that the formal endorsement of anticorruption as part of the SDGs will do little good, and the inclusion of Target 16.5 might, if anything, be counterproductive.
To understand my skepticism, it’s perhaps helpful to begin by emphasizing that what makes the SDGs (like their MDG predecessors) distinctive is that they purport not only to announce in general terms what the international community views as important, but to establish specific (measurable) goals and targets, with a 15-year timeframe for hitting those targets, using quantitative indicators. (That’s the only reason I can think of why SDG Target 16.5 would offer anything that the UN Convention Against Corruption, and its associated peer review mechanism, doesn’t already provide.) The question, then, is whether that approach is the right approach to take to an objective like reducing corruption.
So how will the UN and other monitors be able to tell whether countries have succeeded in “substantially reduc[ing]” all forms of corruption and bribery? Although the UN has not yet officially announced how progress will be measured, we do have last June’s official report to the Secretary General from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which had the task of preparing a report for the UN’s Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG). The SDSN’s 225 page report, the product of a year and half of work and consultations with thousands of experts, therefore may be our best source of insight into how the UN will monitor progress toward achieving Target 16.5. And the indicator that the SDSN report proposes to measure progress toward this target is…
…<drum roll please>…
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).
Seriously. I swear I’m not making this up. Apparently, the SDSN Brain Trust is advising the UN to endorse, as part of the SDG evaluation progress, improvement in each country’s CPI score—presumably by some amount, relative to the 2014 baseline CPI score. This is despite the fact that, as a general matter, the SDSN argues against the use of composite indexes because “they require more complex data collection methods, and often rely on imputation for missing variables and arbitrary weighting,” and also emphasizes that indicators should “be consistent to enable measurement over time” (which the CPI is not). And indeed, the UNODC’s own National Anticorruption Strategy Guide (which, full disclosure, I helped draft, and which was published after the SDSN Report) specifically says that changes in a country’s CPI score should not be used to measure progress toward achieving anticorruption goals, for a variety of very sound reasons.
To be fair, the SDSN acknowledges that corruption is difficult to measure, that “objective data tends to be highly incomplete and difficult to compare,” and that the CPI indicator is problematic. (The SDSN Report gives this indicator a “C” grade, noting that it “will be very difficult or infeasible within the time frame” to gather all the necessary data.) But those concessions naturally invite the question whether it’s at all appropriate to use over-time changes in the CPI score to measure progress on addressing corruption. (The answer, as I’ve argued several times on this blog, is no, no, no, and no.) And of course, even if inter-temporal CPI comparisons were legit, in order for the SDG target to be meaningful, we’d still need to be able to come up with appropriate target improvement levels for each country, and it’s not at all clear how to do that. Moreover, as many, many people (and TI itself) have pointed out, the CPI measures perceptions, which may not correspond to reality—or may be slow to react to genuine changes—and have very large statistical margins of error, making these scores doubtful candidates for SDG-style progress assessments.
Of course, the SDSN Report is just a proposal (albeit quite an extensive and likely influential one), and it remains to be seen what indicators the IAEG-SDG will ultimately adopt. Is there anything better than the CPI for this sort of over-time anticorruption progress assessment? Well, there’s the Worldwide Governance Indicators control-of-corruption index, and the International Country Risk Guide published by Political Risk Services, both of which may be slightly more suitable for over-time comparisons, though only slightly. But really the larger question here, and the source of my inability to muster a lot of enthusiasm for SDG 16, is whether anticorruption is really all that well-suited to the sort of quantitative target approach associated with the MDGs (and presumably extended in the SDGs). This is not, I hasten to add, due to any objection to quantitative assessment in the anticorruption area. I’m all for that – indeed, we should have much more of it. The question is whether the particular approach reflected in the SDGs (including Target 16.5), requiring a national-level quantitative metric used to assess progress over time at the national level is a useful and appropriate means of evaluating success (and ensuring accountability) in the context of anticorruption efforts. My tentative answer to that question is no. I’m happy to be convinced otherwise, but I want to hear an argument about how integrating CPI improvements (or something similar) into the SDGs is likely to be helpful, as opposed to distracting, confusing, and potentially misleading.