The UK Aid Impact Commission’s Review of DFID Anticorruption Programs Is Dreadful

Last week, the United Kingdom’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) released its report on the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s efforts to fight corruption in poor countries. The report, which got a fair amount of press attention (see here, here, here, and here), was harshly critical of DFID. But the report itself has already been criticized in return, by a wide range of anticorruption experts. Heather Marquette, the director of the Developmental Leadership Program at the University of Birmingham, described the ICAI report as “simplistic,” “a mess,” and a “wasted opportunity” that “fails to understand the nature of corruption.” Mick Moore, head of the International Centre for Tax and Development at the Institute for Development Studies, said that the report was “disingenuous[]” and “oversimplif[ied],” and that it “threatens to push British aid policy in the wrong direction.” Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, called the report a “wasted opportunity” that “has failed to significantly add to our evidence base,” largely because “ICAI’s attitude to what counts as evidence is so inconsistent between what it asks of DFID and what it accepts for itself.”

Harsh words. Are they justified? After reading the ICAI report myself, I regret to say the answer is yes. Though there are some useful observations scattered throughout the ICAI report, taken as a whole the report is just dreadful. Despite a few helpful suggestions on relatively minor points, neither the report’s condemnatory tone nor its primary recommendations are backed up with adequate evidence or cogent reasoning. It is, in most respects, a cautionary example of how incompetent execution can undermine a worthwhile project. Continue reading

Corruption “Tells” — An Overlooked Factor in Determining Corruption Perceptions

Last month, the European Commission released a comprehensive report on corruption in the EU, based on two perception surveys (one of the general population and one of businesspeople) as well as existing public data. One of the report’s most striking findings was the prevalence of perceived corruption among the general public: over 75% of Europeans surveyed thought corruption was “widespread” in their country–even in countries where very few respondents had personally experienced or witnessed corruption.

The EU Report is not the first study to find a sizeable gap between people’s perception of corruption’s prevalence and their reported personal experience with corruption.  What explains this gap?  The two most common explanations are: (1) perceptions of corruption overstate true corruption (as perceptions may be swayed by sensationalistic media reports, and perhaps skewed by factors like ethnic heterogeneity and low social engagement, or because of different understandings of what “corruption” means); (2) self-reported experiences with corruption understate true corruption, because people do not respond truthfully to questions about their personal experience even when anonymity is guaranteed.

But there is another possibility, which highlights a limitation of studies that compare only general perceptions of corruption with direct, personal experience with corruption: These surveys typically fail to account for “tells” – observable indications of potential corruption. Continue reading