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Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Measuring the unmeasurable

A new paper shades some light on the challenges of measuring corruption that many media commentators take for granted :

Corruption is a multidimensional phenomenon and no one number can measure it adequately. If it is suitably specialized to a particular aspect, it can be measured and countries ranked. If we consider corruption in petty bureaucracy, there is no doubt that there are fewer corrupt transactions in rich countries where the bureaucrats receive hefty salaries. Small private sectors and large, underpaid bureaucracies in poor countries lead to substantially greater exposure of general public to corrupt transactions. However, there are many more dimensions to corruption, and by changing the focus and definitions suitably, it would be easy to establish that richer countries are more corrupt. It is the powerful who decide which dimensions should be considered in constructing a measure of corruption and governance. If, instead of the number of corrupt transactions, we focus on ‘volume’ and ‘impact’ it is likely that the correlation between income and corruption would be reversed. This is because the rich require heftier bribes, and the stakes and resulting losses are much higher. When rich multinational drug companies “lobby” to protect patent rights, deaths in poorer countries result from lack of availability of generic equivalents. When agricultural lobbies protect subsidies against WTO rules in EU and USA, African farmers starve10. Millions die in wars conducted for naked pursuit of power or profits for the rich countries. There is no parallel among the more corrupt poorer countries to killing a half million children11, or the burning of millions of Jews, for political purposes.

It is in the interest of the powerful to focus on those dimensions which make them appear better, as it provides a moral justification for their otherwise unjustifiable actions. This does not mean that poor countries (with low GNP per capita) should not try to eliminate corruption or improve governance – both of these steps are important and necessary. However, spurious quantitative calculations do not prove the moral superiority of the rich just as spurious biological arguments do not prove the racial superiority of the whites.

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