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Transparency International’s Corruption Index: Perception vs. reality

Update : 01 Feb 2024, 08:59

Global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) recently released the 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) where Bangladesh ranks 10th from the bottom. In order to get a realistic idea of what these rankings are really about, we need to dive into how a perceptions index research is conducted, and how realistic the picture really is!

Perception vs. reality

1. The first CPI was released in 1995 and has created controversy ever since. Perhaps the most persuasive criticism is that the report artificially sets countries in conflict or in competition against each other.

2. While preparing the report respondents in each country are asked for their experiences of bribery, misuse of public funds, use of public office for personal gain, protection for whistleblowers, anti-corruption legislation and more. However, the wide-ranging topic of corruption i.e. tax fraud, private sector fraud, money-laundering and the operation of the informal economy go unaddressed. Corruption entails much more than only accepting bribes, and the CPI finds it difficult to differentiate not only between different types of corruption but also between their impact and severity.

3. It’s also worth mentioning that the CPI measures perceived corruption rather than actual investigations or successful scrutiny.

4. Another inherent problem with the CPI is that survey respondents often are motivated by their own biases and background.

5. There is no effective way to assess the accurate levels of corruption in countries or territories on the basis of hard, empirical data. Possible attempts to do so, such as by comparing bribes reported, the number of prosecutions brought court cases directly linked to corruption, cannot be taken as decisive indicators of corruption levels.

6. By CPI only public sector corruption is forced into mainstream conversation. As a result corruption originating in the private sector is not at all surveyed by CPI. CPI does not hold accountable western countries that are well-known to be tax havens and governments that actively help corporations with tax evasion. Therefore, despite their very questionable practices depicts them as mostly free of corruption.

7. The CPI approach implicitly views corruption as one issue, an attribute of political systems. In reality, however, corruption actually occurs in real-world contexts and places that are difficult to map onto the nation state. 

Finally, I would like to state that perceptions are not facts and more often than not they are not supported by any substantial evidence. The CPI is subject to criticism for a number of reasons, including definitional issues, perception bias, unreliable accuracy, a problematic statistical methodology, and an inability to identify long-term trends. Notably, perceptions do not always correspond to reality. There is ample proof that, at least in the case of corruption, there is frequently a startling discrepancy between perception and reality. For example, a country, is struggling to maintain economic stability.

So they strike deals with large corporations to help their finances. The deal stricken is perceived by other countries and journalists as corruption  as the government is now dealing with someone in the private sector instead of solving the problem by themselves. This causes their CPI rankings to drop significantly with no way for them to change the perception.

The long-held belief that introducing ‘good governance,’ as defined in terms of a Western model of liberal democracy, is the sole method to tackle corruption is being seriously being questioned. Rather, the importance of context in governance is becoming more widely recognized all over the world.

TI’s CPI has its shortcomings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the report is worth dismissing entirely. The index has not altered significantly since it was first introduced. The fact that this index actively creates perverse incentives in addition to serving as a poor guide for policy is perhaps the most revealing criticism it receives. All of the above problems with the way the CPI report is prepared make it less and less credible. 

Barrister Miti Sanjana is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and an activist.

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