Apart from minor changes, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index doesn’t change very much year by year and its publication each January typically leads to an uptick in its common criticisms being voiced at the same time every year.
These core criticisms are primarily concerning the fact that the CPI relies on a small number of sources, the approach of utilizing “expert opinions” alone was insufficient, and its focus on public sector corruption alone had diminished what we can read into it.
This, coupled with what many authors cite as the CPI’s perceived Western bias (which a cursory glance at the top of the table tends to seem obvious) and poor conceptual framing more generally, led over the years to the CPI grabbing international headlines, but being seen as not sufficient by practitioners, academics and civil society organization as painting a particularly accurate picture or providing a particularly nuanced picture of the complex social and economic phenomena that is corruption.
To understand the CPI, its origins and what it means today, you have to go back to the period referred to by some as the “corruption eruption” — a period roughly beginning in the late 1980s and reaching its epoch during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was a period wherein a number of international organizations set out to more effectively control corruption. Notable among these organizations were the United Nations and Transparency International itself. The two organizations sought to control corruption through the development of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) and through the provision of greater information through the CPI, respectively.
This was a period wherein information on the scale and geographic distribution of corruption was at a premium, and into this void the CPI was developed in 1995.
Although the CPI has gone through a number of changes over the years, its responsiveness to the spike in international treaties and conventions has remained poorly understood. One way in which this relationship can be investigated is to look at whether early ratification of UNCAC – a landmark international convention adopted in 2003 and effective from 2005 – had any impact on a country’s scores in the CPI. This approach allows for an insight into whether countries could benefit from proactively signing up to the international conventions.
My research has identified a small positive and significant relationship between early ratification of the UNCAC and an improvement within CPI scores.
We could perhaps view the improvement in scores in those countries who were early ratifiers of the UNCAC as a response to the information paradox, wherein increasing the quantity and quality of information regarding undesirable practices often gives the impression that those practices worsened, when in fact underlying conditions may have stabilized or even improved. It is through this that we could view those countries which were early ratifiers as potentially benefiting from a reversal of the information paradox, where there may exist a greater perception of controlling corruption, and thus some countries are more likely to benefit from improved scores within the CPI – regardless of their actual implementation of the UNCAC provisions.
Herein we can see that appearing to be proactive in controlling corruption by signing up early to international treaties and conventions can lead to a positive outcome whereby a country’s score can improve within one of the most widely used international measures of corruption.
This lends some credibility to the argument put forward by defenders of the CPI, namely that through this we can see the case that the CPI is in fact responsive to changes in the legal framework within countries, and that its small impact on CPI scores can indeed highlight that the CPI will change when legal frameworks within countries (as emblemized through international treaties and conventions) also changes.
This finding that a country’s early UNCAC adoption could lead to a better CPI score is a cautionary tale. Perhaps it highlights that if a county appears to control corruption, that appearance can be more important than taking real concrete steps in controlling corruption.
My December 2019 paper, “Corrupting Perceptions -An Analysis of The Impact Of The United Nations Convention Against Corruption On Corruption Perception Index Scores,” can be downloaded here.