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Sorry, but corruption can be measured

In a recent FCPA Blog post, William Weaver argued that “actual corruption is essentially unmeasurable,” and that “our imperfect measurements of corruption, even more accurate random forced response surveys, have found only a noisy relationship between perceptions of corruption and its reality.”

Because these bold statements implicitly reject substantial masses of empirical data from a variety of sources, anti-corruption experts need to analyze them closely.

The fundamental problem with Weaver’s thesis is his failure to define what he means by “actual corruption” and “unmeasurable.” Instead, he sidesteps the definitional problem by asserting that “[d]ifferent observers view corruption in different ways”: a “boon” or ‘self-described necessary evil” for corrupt individuals, “a premodern form of patronage,” or “various operations of a premodern system of communication now described as criminality.”

The broader and more diverse the list of attributes a concept has, of course, the more difficult it becomes to define or measure that concept. But even if there is no authoritative definition that covers every category of corruption, there are various methods by which countries, businesses, and non-governmental organizations can and do measure important dimensions of corruption.

At the grass-roots level, for example, there is now a broad array of experiential surveys that gather voluntary responses from representative samples of people in everyday life about their actual encounters with corruption. While barometer surveys can differ in their scopes and purposes, it is fair to say that the Global Corruption Barometer, Afrobarometer, and the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index (to name a few) provide important current and longitudinal data about actual and perceived corruption in jurisdictions around the world.

Weaver briefly disparages data relating to perceptions of corruption. Yet resources such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index should not be summarily dismissed. Even taking into account the possibility that respondent and country characteristics may bias corruption perceptions, there is still value in systematically sampling the views of informed businesspeople and country experts about the levels of public-sector corruption.

Certainly at the grand-corruption level, there is no reliable contemporaneous measurement of the total number and amounts of bribes that corrupt officials around the world are taking. On the other hand, as numerous corruption investigations have demonstrated, in particular cases law enforcement agencies can document, with a fair degree of precision, how much in bribes was paid to officials and how much business the companies paying the bribes received in return.

Establishing the orders of magnitude and patterns of bribery by companies yields data relevant for corporate-compliance teams as well as anti-corruption advocacy groups.

In addition, Weaver’s commentary takes no note of the increasing use of sophisticated data analytics and artificial intelligence by companies and government agencies. Those technologies make it much more possible to conduct ongoing monitoring of transactions and accounts at all levels of a company, and identify anomalous activity that may be indicative of corruption.

In short, if the standard to be adopted for measuring corruption is perfection, then corruption is no more measurable than the length of the coast of Britain or the volume of water in the Mississippi River. But perfection can never be the standard for anything we seek to measure, regarding corruption or any other phenomenon. Reasonable people can and should work with reasonable estimates of corruption, so long as they recognize the need to keep improving the quantity and quality of those data.


Jonathan J. Rusch, pictured above, is Principal of DTG Risk & Compliance, and former Head of Anti-Bribery & Corruption Governance at Wells Fargo. The views expressed are his own. He can be contacted here

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  1. Spot on Jon – We can't let perfect be the enemy of the good. In order to address a problem we need measurement data. We should never throw our hands up and declare the task impossible. The goal should always be to seek better understanding, which should help us find better measurements and yield better data which in turn, should help us lead to an ability to address corruption and its deleterious impact on our global society. Well done my friend!


    William Weaver's recent post arguing that corruption is not definable because it differs according to jurisdictional mores begs the very question that the late United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart confronted when attempting to define obscenity: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within the shorthand description (hard core pornography), and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligently doing so. BUT I KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT. (emphasis mine)

    Of course, all would agree that corruption is a relative phenomenon and may be undefinable. However, with that said, we certainly know when fundamental concepts of honesty and integrity are violated, thereby resulting in a corrupt environment. Arbitrary as our concepts may be, they do provide recognizable thresholds that allow for an agreed-upon standard of honesty. Legislation attempts, perhaps bluntly, to translate these accepted concepts into law.

    To accept Weaver's fatalistic approach would essentially deny corruption exists. That may be the norm in certain cultures, but it certainly does not comport with what we in democratically-
    organized societies are willing to accept. Theoretical arguments are and should be part academe, but those in the public sector responsible for investigating corruption must deal with concrete remedies. To do any less, would essentially legalize fraud, extortion, and the abuse of power for personal or institutional gain—the basic ingredients that comprise the amorphous term referred to as

  3. We should be able to agree that corruption is uniquely difficult, though not impossible, to measure. The method of gauging perceptions of corruption is useful in identifying the really bad players from the better players. Toward either end of the spectrum it is less likely to distinguish the relative levels of corruption. There are so many variables, including different awareness, acceptance, and enforcement levels, petty vs. grand corruption, etc., that the effort to rank venues becomes problematic. Data may be skewed depending on these factors. No single method of measurement will account for all of these differences. Certainly, the increased attention to a problem that was once largely ignored has heightened awareness of the issue almost everywhere. We need to keep working on improving ways to measure our progress.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Jonathan about the value of trying to measure the degrees of corruption around the world, though the results will necessarily be imperfect. (My own posts on the TRACE Bribery Risk Matrix should make that much clear.) But he seems to be missing the main thrust of William’s article. In describing corruption as “essentially unmeasurable,” William seems to be stepping back from practical concerns about corruption and compliance and instead looking at the matter from a sociological perspective. It isn’t so much that corruption can’t be measured, but that while carrying out our measurements we can also ask questions about the operational and epistemological structures that give rise to our understanding of what corruption is.

  5. For whatever it is worth, I totally support Jonathan Rusch’s argument and that of the commentators, but on the real world experiences of a global practitioner.

    I’ve worked in over 50 countries on anti corruption country assessments, strategies, evaluations and programs for over 25 years and almost always found the public and private sector survey tools, as well as the expert and user surveys, to be of great value and more times than not, not far from the mark. If anything, even these tools sometimes understated the degree and depth of corruption, particularly in authoritarian countries or important sectors like natural resiurces. So the risk from my experience is not that these tools usually overstate the degree and depth of corruption but that they often understate it. This is particularly true for private sector corruption, which is an area far more murky, more misunderstood and unfortunately seen as a much lower priority than public sector corruption.

    The reality is public and private sector corruption are often inextricably linked. We now need to refocus and create tools focused on the most important issues, sectors and institutions in a holistic country-by-country basis with our eyes on grande and petty corruption and on our global fundamental rights.

  6. The considerations may bring closer, better view to our understanding of what corruption is.

    Firstly we should be able to correct understand and know what we want to be measured. Popularized in many reports and scientific articles so called CPI indicators, are not able to reflect the true scale of corruption, mechanizsm and its size, as well as economic effects. Corruption in practice is much more complex and complicated and "the problem of measurability of corrupt practices" can not be explained in a few sentences.

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