As GAB readers are aware, I’ve occasionally used this platform to complain about widely-repeated corruption statistics that appear to be, at best, unreliable guesstimates misrepresented as precise calculations—and at worst, completely bogus. (The “$1 trillion in annual bribe payments” figure would be an example of the former; the “corruption costs the global economy $2.6 trillion per year” is an example of the latter.) I recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, made-up statistics and false precision are not that big a deal. After all, the anticorruption community faces 1,634 problems that are more important than false precision, and in any event 43% of all statistics quoted in public debates are completely made up. Yet my strong instincts are that we in the anticorruption community ought to purge these misleading figures from our discussions, and try to pursue not only the academic study of corruption, but also our anticorruption advocacy efforts, using a more rigorous and careful approach to evidence.
But perhaps I’m wrong about that, or at least naïve. A few months ago, after participating in a conference panel where some of the other speakers invoked the “corruption costs $2.6 trillion” figure, I was having a post-panel chat with another one of the panelists (an extremely smart guy who runs the anticorruption programs at a major international NGO), and I was criticizing (snarkily) the tendency to throw out these big but not-well-substantiated numbers. Why, I asked, can’t we just say, “Corruption is a really big problem that imposes significant costs?” We’ve got plenty of research on that point, and—a few iconoclastic critics aside—the idea that corruption is a big problem seems to have gained widespread, mainstream acceptance. Who really cares if the aggregate dollar value of annual bribe payments is $1 trillion, $450 billion, $2.3 trillion, or whatever? Why not just say, corruption is bad, here’s a quick summary of the evidence that it does lots of damage, and move on? My companion nodded, smiled, and said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. But as an advocate, you need to have a number.”
We didn’t get to continue our conversation, but that casual remark has stuck with me. After all, as I noted above, this person is extremely smart, insightful, and reflective, and he has lots of experience working on anticorruption advocacy at a very high level (a kind of experience that I, as an Ivory Tower academic, do not have). “As an advocate, you need to have a number.” Is that right? Is there a plausible case for continuing to open op-eds, speeches, policy briefs, and so forth with statements like, “Experts estimate that over $1 trillion bribes are paid each year, costing the global economy over $2.6 trillion,” even if we know that those numbers are at best wildly inaccurate? (This question, by the way, is closely related to an issue I raised in a post last year, that arose out of a debate I had with another advocate about the legal interpretation of the UN Convention Against Corruption.)
I thought I’d use this post as an opportunity to raise that question with our readers, in the hopes of both getting some feedback (especially from our readers with first-hand experience in the advocacy and policymaking communities) and provoking some conversations on this question, even if people don’t end up writing in with their views. And to be clear, I’m not just interested in the narrow question of whether we should keep using the $2.6 billion or $1 trillion estimates. I’m more generally curious about the role (and relative importance) of seemingly precise “big numbers” in anticorruption advocacy work. Do we really need them? Why? And is what we gain worth the costs?