Everyone’s against corruption these days. That’s certainly a theme that unites recent mass protests in countries ranging from Bahrain through China, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.
But let’s not get the idea that such demonstrations are confined to non- or quasi-democratic states. There have been anti-corruption protests in India as well as post-communist countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia and Russia.
And even in more established European democracies, there have been significant protests against corruption in Greece, Spain and – most notably – Italy, where demonstrators in Rome recently chanted ‘After Mubarak, Silvio Berlusconi’. Across the world, it seems, citizens are expressing contempt for their corrupt leaders.
But what is the corruption provoking such protests? The difficulty with the notion of corruption is that it is so wide ranging, with one commonly accepted definition being ‘the abuse of power for private gain’. But that means we can bracket together examples ranging from the day-to-day petty instances familiar in many states where local officials take bribes all the way to ‘state capture’, where major policy decisions are sold to the highest bidder.
Of course, for victims of corruption, such niceties may not matter. But for those trying to combat corruption, it is essential to understand what it is they are fighting – both where it takes place and how widespread it is. The standard approach for many is to look at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which is published annually and ranks countries on a scale of 0 (most corrupt) to 10 (least corrupt). The CPI helps us think we ‘know’ which countries are the most corrupt.
But, as I have argued in a recent article with Staffan Andersson, the CPI can be criticised on several grounds: definition problems, perception bias, false accuracy, a flawed statistical model, and a failure to capture long-term trends.
Perceptions matter in politics, but in regard to corruption they are susceptible to manipulation and misinterpretation. Take, for instance, a recent Eurobarometer survey of European attitudes to corruption, which found that nearly 80 per cent of EU citizens saw it as a ‘major problem’ in their country. Only in Denmark, Luxembourg and Sweden did fewer than half the respondents agree. Those seen as most likely to be corrupt were politicians at national level, followed by officials awarding public tenders and those issuing building permits, then politicians at regional level. However, personal experience of corruption was very low, with just 9 per cent of respondents having been asked to pay any form of bribe for access to services over the preceding twelve months.
The gap between personal experience and perception may be explained to some extent by the regularity with which the press now exposes ‘scandals’ involving national politicians. As a result, any misdemeanour by a political figure – particularly if it involves sex – is seen as evidence of ‘corruption’, with that term becoming something used to describe anything we don’t like about politics.
In turn, the risk – and indeed the reality in some parts of the world – is that all politics comes to be seen as corrupt. Politics is corruption, and corruption is politics. Such a view carries real dangers for all of us.