Making Release of the CPI into Something Useful in the Fight Against Corruption

Yesterday’s release of the Corruption Perceptions Index prompted the annual, dreary, unproductive pattern of overblown press releases and gnashing of teeth. Critics cite their government’s failure to sharply increase its CPI score as an excuse for issuing press releases bashing it for failings of every kind. The teeth gnashing comes from those in governments doing their best to fight corruption and frustrated that their efforts have had no discernable impact on the score.

No part of my work helping countries curb corruption has been more frustrating than trying to explain to the media, dedicated government corruption fighters, and civil society that they should stop making such a fuss about yearly changes in CPI scores. As Matthew reiterated in yesterday’s post (for the umpteenth time), short-term comparisons are “a pointless, misleading, intellectually bankrupt exercise.” But my explanations, GAB posts, and the academic literature explaining in excruciating detail why it takes years if not decades for anticorruption reforms to affect a nation’s CPI score have all fallen on deaf ears.

Thankfully, government corruption fighters and their supporters in Nigeria have found a way to use release of the CPI to advance the fight against corruption.  As explained here, last year its Minister of Information and Culture responded to the release of the CPI with a statement describing what the government had done over the past year to prevent corruption. This year the Nigerian Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, TI’s national chapter, issued a statement putting the CPI in context and highlighting reforms underway and where more needs to be done.

Most importantly, rather than using the release of the CPI to criticize the many Nigerian public servants who spend their days fighting corruption, it went out of its way to applaud them, saying:

“It is important to stress that [the CPI score] is not an assessment of Nigeria’s anti-graft agencies who are making commendable efforts in reducing (in the fight against) corruption in Nigeria despite the political interference they face.

The full text of the Advocacy Centre’s statement follows. It merits close study by all those looking for ways to transform the annual, dreary, unproductive ritual around release of the CPI into something that can help produce results in the fight against corruption.

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Re-Upping Last Year’s Post on How (Not) to Cover the About-To-Be-Released CPI

Later this week (tomorrow, I believe) Transparency International (TI) will release the newest version of its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). I was going to do a post on this, but I realized as I started writing it that what I had to say was virtually identical to what I wrote at this time list year. So I’m just going to paste below the text of last year’s post, while noting my sincere hope that by next year, or at least within a few years, this will no longer be relevant: Continue reading

Guest Post: Contesting the Narrative of Anticorruption Failure

Today’s guest post is from Robert Barrington, currently a professor of practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, who previously served as the executive director of Transparency International UK, where he worked for over a decade.

I have read with great interest the recent exchange of views between Professor Bo Rothstein and Professor Matthew Stephenson on the academic study of corruption and anticorruption. As an anticorruption practitioner who now works within an academic research center, I was particularly struck by how their exchange (Professor Rothstein’s initial post, Professor Stephenson’s critique, and Professor Rothstein’s reply) surfaced some extremely important issues for anticorruption scholarship, its purposes, and its relationship to anticorruption practice.

I find it hard to agree with Professor Rothstein’s analysis, but this is before even looking at his points of difference with Professor Stephenson. My main beef with Professor Rothstein’s analysis is with his starting assumption of widespread failure. Like so many prominent scholars who study corruption, he proceeds from the premise that pretty much all of the anticorruption reform activity over the last generation has failed. He asserts that “[d]espite huge efforts from international development organizations, we have seen precious little success combating corruption,” that anticorruption reform efforts have been a “huge policy failure,” and sets out to explain “[w]hy …  so many anti-corruption programs [have] not delivered[.]” Professor Rothstein then offers three main answers, which Professor Stephenson criticizes.

In taking this downbeat view, Professor Rothstein is not alone. The scholarship of failure on this subject lists among its adherents many of the most prominent academic voices in the field. Professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi has framed as a central question in corruption scholarship, “[W]hy do so many anticorruption reform initiatives fail?” Professor Michael Johnston asserts that “the results of anticorruption reform initiatives, with very few exceptions, have been unimpressive, or even downright counter-productive.” Professor Paul Heywood, notable for the nuance he generally brings to anticorruption analysis, asserts that there has been a “broad failure of anticorruption policies” in developing and developed countries alike. And many scholars proceed to reason backwards from that starting point of failure: If anticorruption reform efforts have been an across-the-board failure, it must be because anticorruption practitioners are doing things in the wrong way, which is because they are proceeding from an entirely wrongheaded set of premises. The principal problems identified by these scholars, perhaps not coincidentally, are those where academics might have a comparative advantage over practitioners: use of the wrong definition of corruption, use of the wrong social science framework to understand corruption, and (as Professor Rothstein puts it) locating corruption in the “wrong social spaces.”

That so many distinguished scholars have advanced something like this assessment makes me wary, as a practitioner, of offering a different view. But I do see things differently. In my view, both the initial assessment (that anticorruption reform efforts have been an across-the-board failure) and the diagnosis (that this failure is due to practitioners not embracing the right definitions and theories) are incorrect; they are more than a little unfair, and potentially harmful. I want to emphasize that different take should not be considered as an attack on eminent scholars, but a genuine effort to tease out why, when presented with the same evidence, some academics see failure, while many practitioners see success. Here goes: Continue reading

Something Is Rotten from the State of Denmark

In this year’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) rankings, Denmark yet again topped the list (tied with New Zealand) as the world’s cleanest country. But the CPI has well-known limitations—including the fact that it focuses on corruption within countries while excluding how country’s nationals behave abroad. And in this latter context, Denmark performs rather poorly. Danish companies have faced numerous credible allegations of paying bribes worth hundreds of millions of dollars in dozens of countries (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Several of those countries have been sanctioned by the World Bank and the European Union. Yet Danish companies have largely escaped suffering any consequence within Denmark for their corrupt practices abroad. Of the thirteen major allegations of foreign bribery brought in the last decade by Danish authorities against Danish companies, several closed without adequate investigation, and none resulted in any prosecution. No wonder that Denmark’s last report card on from the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Working Group—released in 2015—found Denmark’s performance in enforcing its laws against foreign bribery to be deeply wanting. Yet six years and many public commitments later, Denmark has done very little (other than publishing a three-page “How to avoid corruption” pamphlet) to address its shortcomings in this area.

So, what’s stopping the “least corrupt” country in the world (at least, according to the CPI) from tackling its foreign bribery problem? If allegations of foreign bribery are widespread and credible, why have Danish companies continued to enjoy effective domestic impunity? There are two ways to answer this question, one of which focuses on the legal deficiencies in Denmark’s criminal code, which make it hard for prosecutors to bring winning cases, and the other of which focuses on the reasons why Denmark hasn’t changed these laws, notwithstanding critical commentaries and advice from organizations like the OECD.

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Johnston and Fritzen: The Conundrum of Corruption

Michael Johnston had done it again.  A — if not the — dean of corruption studies has a new book out.  This one a collaboration with a real dean, Scott Fritzen, professor at the University of Oklahoma and dean of its College of International Studies. The two’s The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice, just published in an affordable paperback edition from Routledge, is an invaluable guide to the latest learning on corruption, chronicling the rise of the international anticorruption movement, what has been learned, and what those lessons say about how to carry the fight against corruption forward.

But warning. Readers looking for an inventory of “best practices,” anticorruption “toolkits,” flashy technological innovations, and game-changing carrots and sticks will be disappointed.  Not a one is to be found.  Instead, Johnston and Fritzen explain why practitioners’ two decade plus search for such “silver bullets” has fallen flat and what corruption should concentrate on instead.

Some highlights. The role of cross-national measures of corruption like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and whether they have outlived their usefulness. The value of principal-agent analysis and how it can be misused. What civil society can do.

Among those for whom the book is a must read are members of what the authors term the “anticorruption industry.” (Those in development agencies, international organizations, foundations, and academia know who you are.) And those who uttered the phrase “political will.” No one should ever, ever again use it until they have read what the authors say about this much abused and misunderstood term.

Those engaged in the fight against corruption, those teaching the next generation of corruption fighters, or those simply looking for an authoritative guide to the issue will want to make room on their shelf for what is sure to become a classic work on the subject.

New Zealand’s Discomfort at the Top of the Corruption Perception Index

Earlier this year, Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and, once again, New Zealand was ranked as the “least corrupt country in the world” – a title it has held thirteen out of the last fifteen years. It may come as something of a surprise, then, that this news was greeted in New Zealand not so much with celebration as with measured caution. Even the most positive New Zealand news outlets led with caveats that New Zealand still faces corruption risks, including “inadequate protection for whistle-blowers, and no register showing who ultimately controls or benefits from companies registered in this country.” Others skipped the congratulatory headlines entirely, preferring headers such as “Government Warned Not to Ruin Corruption-Free Status.” As one New Zealand newspaper succinctly put it: “New Zealand is the least corrupt country in the world, but when that statement is whispered over here it is almost always followed by a ‘however’.”

This near-ubiquitous grimness of New Zealand’s press with regards to anticorruption measures practically begs the outside observer to ask: Why the doom and gloom? What explains the gap between “all major ranking institutions and indexes” and the perception of New Zealand’s citizenry themselves?

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Let’s Talk About Monaco

Monaco, the sovereign city-state on France’s Mediterranean coast, is many things. It is the second smallest country in the world, following only Vatican City. It boasts the highest GDP per capita of any country. It is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by the same family for over 700 years. It is known for its opulent casino, expensive real estate, and swaggering F1 drivers.

It is also willfully resistant to the Council of Europe’s anticorruption transparency recommendations – or any transparency measures at all, for that matter.

Perhaps due to its small size, Monaco has flown somewhat under the radar in international corruption monitoring. The city-state doesn’t feature in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, and TI’s web page for Monaco is quite blank. Despite being an international tax haven and banking center, Monaco is conspicuously missing from both the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings and the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom. It’s not that Monaco is a corruption-free paradise. In the few lists in which it does appear, Monaco does not score particularly well: In the RAND Corporation’s Business Bribery Risk Assessment, for instance, Monaco ranked 72nd out of 192 jurisdictions. And a number of recent corruption scandals have involved Monaco, either directly or indirectly. Last year, for example, two brothers who ran a Monaco-based consultancy called Unaoil pleaded guilty in the United States to charges involving millions of dollars in bribes paid between 1999 and 2016. Corruption alarms were also raised in July 2019, when Monaco’s justice minister abruptly blocked term renewal for a judge leading a corruption inquiry that involved a Russian billionaire, a former Monaco justice minister, senior Monaco police officials, and others. More recently, in late November 2020, former French president Nicholas Sarkozy went on trial for attempting to bribe a French magistrate with a prestigious job in Monaco.

These incidents have largely come to light because of involvement outside of Monaco: international companies, legal battles that cross borders, and foreign politicians. Monaco itself remains something of a black box. As a 2017 report from the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) noted, there are no records whatsoever of criminal or disciplinary proceedings related to corruption in Monaco’s parliament. This lack of reported cases, GRECO concluded, is likely due not to an absence of corruption, but to a lack of oversight. As the report noted, Monaco has “few mechanisms to ensure satisfactory transparency of parliamentary work and consultations,” and lacks a “code of conduct that would govern, among other things, the acceptance of gifts and other benefits, the management of conflicts of interest, or relations with lobbies and other third parties seeking to influence parliamentary processes and decisions.” The GRECO report further observed that although judicial proceedings are typically public, there is a carve-out for holding court behind closed doors where public proceedings “might cause a scandal or serious inconvenience.” Cases “concerning the internal operation of courts” are also not public. In practice, there is even less transparency than the official policies would indicate, as most criminal cases are in fact dealt with in France, behind closed doors.

Without a code of conduct against corruption-related activities, with no mechanisms to provide oversight, with any corruption scandals that do occur likely to be tried in secret, and with little international attention on the issue beyond infrequent GRECO reports, Monaco can keep its corruption well hidden. Although occasional scandals might pop up around Monaco, the country makes it difficult to know the nature and extent of its corruption.

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New Podcast, Featuring Gary Kalman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, we’re delighted to welcome back to the podcast Gary Kalman, the Director of Transparency International’s United States office. I was fortunate to be able to interview Gary a little over one year ago, just before he stepped into his new role as TI’s U.S. Director. In our more recent conversation, we had the opportunity to discuss how his first year in this position has gone, touching on some major successes–most notably the passage of the Corporate Transparency Act, which requires companies to provide the government with information on their true beneficial owners–as well as ongoing challenges. Gary discusses some of the advocacy strategies that proved effective on the corporate transparency issues, and suggests how similar strategies might be deployed to advance other aspects of the anticorruption agenda. He also lays out what he sees as the highest priorities for TI’s advocacy work in the United States, and what vulnerabilities have been exposed by the experience with the Trump Administration and how those might be addressed. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

This Year, Let’s All Resist the Temptation to Emphasize Changes in Individual Country’s CPI Scores!

Later this week (if I’m not mistaken, a couple of days from today) Transparency International (TI) will publish its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), together with some press materials and additional discussions. And if this year is like previous years, many media outlets — and TI itself — will make much of how individual countries’ scores and rankings have changed from the previous year. Often these discussions will be situated into some narrative (usually along the lines of, “Country X’s anticorruption efforts are failing, as we can tell from its declining score”). In fact, sometimes politicians and activists will point to their country’s score changes as evidence on the question whether they are making progress on the fight against corruption.

This comparison of annual CPI scores for individual countries is, with vanishingly few exceptions, a pointless, misleading, intellectually bankrupt exercise, for reasons that I’ve tried to explain pretty much every year for the last seven years. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. To be clear, I’m a fan of the CPI and will continue to defend it as a worthwhile measurement exercise, despite its flaws. And many of the folks on the TI research team who work very hard on this index are smart, serious people who are doing their best. Indeed, if you know where to look, you can sometimes find TI research documents on the CPI that include appropriate caveats. But TI’s press releases and public comments, and most of the media commentary on the CPI, continue to treat individual changes in each country’s score as some kind of meaningful indicator.

This year, I’m going to try something new. Instead of waiting until after the CPI is published, and then sitting back in my (metaphorical) armchair in the Ivory Tower and hurling criticisms at those who portray year-to-year changes in individual countries’ CPI scores as meaningful, I’m going to try raising this issue before the CPI is published, in the hopes that this might have more of an impact in how the CPI numbers are presented, especially by the folks at TI. (And I know some of you read this blog!!!) It’s not too late! Please please please go over your press release and other materials and make sure you’re not presenting your (very important!) work as telling us anything interesting or useful about which individual counties are getting better or worse as compared to last year (or the last few years). Please please please emphasize that the CPI is not meant to be used as an indicator of policy success or failure. Please please please, at the very least, make sure that you emphasize the uncertainty (that is, the “noisiness”) of the perception estimates (which is not the same as the point that perceptions are different from reality, which TI already emphasizes), and for goodness’ sake, don’t emphasize score changes that your own data indicates are not statistically significant at conventional levels.

And in case any of you folks in the media happen to be reading this blog, you can do better too! The CPI is a great “hook” for discussing corruption-related issues in your country, but you do your readers a disservice if you cover the CPI as if it’s a league table, or try to construct a narrative around random noise.

(Oh, by the way, all of the above exhortations are premised on the validity of my critique of year-to-year country CPI comparisons. If anyone out there thinks that critique is misguided, I would also welcome a substantive rebuttal. I’m not going to restate all the elements of my critique here; anyone who is interested can click on the links above and read my posts from previous years.)

Let’s see if this preemptive strike is any more successful than past years’ after-the-fact criticisms…

Guest Post: A Defense of Anticorruption Orthodoxy

Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, contributes today’s guest post.

The international anticorruption movement, which has been so successful over the last 25 years in putting this once-taboo issue squarely at the forefront of the international agenda, is suffering a crisis of confidence. The aspiration to eliminate corruption now seems to many like a fantasy from the dreamy era of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And what had appeared to be an emerging consensus about how to diagnose corruption, and how to respond, is fracturing. There has long been a lively debate within the anticorruption community about the best ways to understand and respond to corruption; and likewise, a growing challenge from several different quarters (including governments, businesses, journalists, and academics) on areas such as measurement, what has been successful, and whether the evidence matches the theory for fundamental approaches such as transparency. The debate and challenge have been broadly healthy, and have led to sharper thinking and improved approaches. But some criticism has veered towards attacking simplistic caricatures of the perceived orthodoxy, or launching broad-brush critiques that, intentionally or not, serve to undermine the anticorruption movement and provide nourishment for those that would prefer to see the anticorruption movement diminished or fail.

Take, for example, two common lines of attack against the “orthodox” approach to tackling corruption, one concerning the diagnosis of the problem and the other concerning appropriate responses: Continue reading