How do you measure corruption?

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ImageA coworker recently emailed me an article about corruption in Vietnam.  Both that article, which talks about the arrests of several journalists who had done extensive reporting on corruption, and some others I’ve read about anticorruption efforts in China have made me wonder whether it’s possible to really measure corruption.  Most of the existing, accepted measures, as the Washington Post noted in an editorial, rely on “perceptions” of corruption or on individual experiences of bribery. There are several well-known surveys, including the frequently-cited Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer, that ask business people or households questions such as whether they think the government is corrupt, whether they have ever paid a bribe or how much they think businesses in general spend on bribes.

These measures are interesting, but what do they really tell us?  It’s hard to know if we can generalize about levels of corruption based on whether individuals in a country will (or won’t) admit to paying a bribe, or if business owners or managers have accurate perceptions about the bribes other companies pay or general levels of corruption.  What these recent articles have reminded me is that other potential measures are even more problematic.  Does the increasing number of stories about a government’s crackdown on corrupt officials point to a large amount of corruption in the country, or to the increasing success of admirable anticorruption efforts?  If the government’s anticorruption activities are less than transparent, could seemingly impressive reports of crackdowns actually be signs of the scape-goating of lower-lever officials while higher-level corruption goes unpunished? 

What is your experience?  Are more prosecutions a sign of progress, or repression, or an increase in corruption?  Are greater public perceptions of corruption a sign of more corruption, or of a successful public awareness campaign about the ill effects of corruption?


Deborah Perlman

Public sector governance

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