Last week Matthew asked if he were the only one who wasn’t excited about Sustainable Development Goal 16. At first glance it is hard to understand why he would ask such a question. One of 17 goals approved September 25 by the United Nations General Assembly to end poverty by 2030, SDG 16 establishes an ambitious agenda for improving the way the nations of the world govern their citizens by, among other measures, requiring concerted global action to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms.” How could anyone, particularly one who works on corruption issues, not be ecstatic that the 193 member-states of the United Nations unanimously endorsed this objective? And indeed numerous anticorruption advocates have already celebrated its approval (click here for Transparency International’s enthusiastic endorsement).
Although the opening of Matthew’s post was low-key (am I the only one not excited?), readers quickly learned that he was in fact severely critical of SDG 16’s corruption and bribery target because of the way progress towards realizing it is to be measured: by changes in a nation’s score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Matthew nicely summarized why this is insane on technical grounds. Here I explain why using the CPI to measure progress is not only insane but represents a major setback in the fight against corruption.
Some years back I spent a week with senior officials of a newly-created anticorruption agency. The purpose of my visit was to help them think through the many critical issues a new anticorruption agency must resolve — from recruitment of staff to an organization chart to the balance between enforcement and prevention. In the end, however, we spent the bulk of the time dissecting the CPI.
The reason was that the annual CPI rating had appeared just before I arrived, and the country’s score had declined slightly. As a result, civil society was up in arms and the prime minister was demanding the agency raise the country’s score by next year. It thus fell to me to explain why the index was not a valid, reliable measure of the level of corruption and that it was indeed likely that many of the steps the agency might take to reduce corruption would, by generating press coverage about corruption in the country, lower the country’s score on next year’s index.
It took time to convince the several senior staff of this point as they came from different disciplines and different arguments appealed to different individuals. The last to be convinced was the agency’s head, and his poignant reaction when he fully grasped what I was saying sticks with me to this day. “Well,” he said with a look of resignation, “now I understand what you are saying but the prime minister never will. Nor will civil society. So what can we do?”
I didn’t have much to offer in reply. I said I could send him and his colleagues copies of the growing literature explaining why the CPI was not a good measure. I could write articles for the local press summarizing them or help him and his colleagues write articles and speeches about CPI. I also volunteered to organize in-country seminars and workshops where the many academic experts who have shown why the CPI is fatally flawed could expound on their work. But that was all I could do, and it was clear the agency head and his colleagues didn’t think a public relations campaign to show citizens and government leaders that, despite the enormous attention the CPI garners each year, it was a worthless measure was likely to be of any help.
The agency was created amid much fanfare, enjoying at least the verbal support of the government of the day and surely the genuine support of civil society. During my first visits I was struck by its leaders’ enthusiasm and their sense of mission. But in the several years since our discussion the agency has not lived up to expectations, and while it would be too much to ascribe its disappointing record completely to the CPI, it certainly didn’t help morale when the agency’s senior staff learned that not only was there nothing they could do to improve the country’s score on the chief measure by which their efforts would be judged but that genuine attempts to combat corruption could well worsen the country’s score. Indeed, what could be a worse way to launch an anticorruption agency?
Now you see why I think the UN’s endorsement of the CPI to measure progress fighting corruption is a Major Setback in the Fight Against Corruption?