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Reliability of corruption indicators

September 2000 saw the signing of the Millennium Declaration, initiated by UNO, committing States to work to reduce poverty and favour world economic growth in the years to come. Acknowledgment of failure of adjustment structural plans (1) has led to a certain rehabilitation of the role of the State.

With that comes the adoption of new strategies for fighting poverty, that place factors other than just classical economic considerations at the heart of development programmes: governance (2), adherence of people to policies or their involvement in public life. To measure the impact of governance, and especially corruption, global indicators have been created and international databases have proliferated.

These indicators, devised initially by private agencies for their clients (banks, investors and so on) or by researchers for their studies, gradually became institutionalized. They allow a mark to be assigned to each country, which then serve to rank them according to their more or less good performance relating to the criterion considered. They are now widely used, notably for allocating aid for development to countries of the South.

At the IRD, researchers of the DIAL research unit (3) focused on the pertinence and limitations of utilizing these global indicators, which are based essentially on the perception of experts (business people, researchers, specialists, senior civil servants, politicians and so on). They put special emphasis on petty bureaucratic corruption that people are subjected to in their dealings with administrative bodies (4). The analysis rests on an original system, involving comparison of two types of survey, conducted between 2001 and 2003, simultaneously in 8 African countries on the same theme. The first involves household surveys (5) and the second consists of surveys conducted by experts, both from North and South – the "mirror surveys". The household surveys, concerning 35 000 people, provide an objective measure of petty bureaucratic corruption and of its characteristics, whereas the expert survey drew upon the perceptions of 350 experts interviewed on the subject. Examination of these two sources of information side-by-side led to an accurate assessment of the error of appreciation made by these experts about the extent and nature of this form of corruption.

The proportion of people stating that they had been direct victims of corruption during the year preceding the survey varied depending on the country: between 8% in Benin and more than 16% in the Ivory Coast and Madagascar, the latter countries having also suffered severe political and economic crisis. This proportion is 13% averaged over the eight countries concerned. Comparison of this figure with the one declared by the experts showed that almost all of these (94%) overestimated the degree of corruption local people suffered. Their assessment put the proportion at 52%, four times greater. This discrepancy was found again when each country was considered individually. Although they recognized the extent of small-scale corruption, the experts showed themselves to be scarcely able to quantify the real size of the phenomenon. Furthermore, countries’ ranking founded on their perception does not correlate with reality. This can be explained by patchy knowledge of the daily life of ordinary citizens and of poor people in particular.

The experts’ judgment of the "mirror survey" proved to be closely associated with global indicators of the perception of corruption originating from the major international databases. This result, which validates the "mirror-enquiry" sample does not, however, provide knowledge as to whether or not this correlation comes from prior knowledge of international ranking or a vision shared by experts as a whole. Moreover, experts’ error of appreciation appears all the more significant in that the countries have been given poor rankings on the international level. In this way, the poorest countries, poorly governed, would be penalized and deprived of the aid they need. Added to that is an ideological bias, some experts tending to overestimate the degree of corruption of countries that do not follow their own personal opinions on economic policy.

These results, by putting the opinion of experts in perspective, emphasize some weaknesses in the system of global corruption indicators, some of which are recognized by the originators of the indicators themselves. However, they do not call into question the overall validity of these indicators: the study concerns only 8 countries. An examination conducted on a larger number of cases could add refinements to the conclusions. Another point is that these indicators embrace the various forms of corruption and not just bureaucratic corruption. The researchers therefore advocate a more reasoned utilization of these global indicators, both in research work and in determining economic policy and development aid allocation. They recommend the setting up of complementary surveys that take into account the point of view of the people concerned and the experiences they have in their daily lives.

Marie Guillaume | EurekAlert!
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