The changing state of corruption

by Professor Paul Heywood

9 Dec 2015

The Corruption Perceptions Index, published annually since 1995 by Transparency International, rarely contains any surprises. We know which countries will be towards the top end of the index and which at the bottom: in fact, it could be argued that the index has remained essentially unchanged since it was first published. That is not to say it has no value.  The CPI has been an excellent advocacy tool, and its release each year serves to highlight the continued global concern about corruption. Yet, the CPI has also been subject to severe criticism on several grounds, including definition problems, perception bias, false accuracy, a flawed statistical model, and a failure to capture long-term trends. It also tells us little about how corruption works in practice and is therefore a poor guide to anti-corruption policy.

However, one of the most important shortcomings of the CPI, as well as other indices such as the Word Bank Control of Corruption measure that seek to rank countries, is that they reflect an outmoded understanding of both corruption and the nation-state.  Profound changes in the nature and organisation of contemporary states mean that many of our traditional concepts and categories in regard to power and authority – most notably, the separation between public and private sectors and the autonomy of state action – need to be revised.  The post-Cold War order has seen the emergence of the ‘post-modern state’ in which national borders have become increasingly irrelevant owing in large measure to new technologies that have changed how states operate. Globalisation has seen greater integration of national economies through trade, foreign direct investment, capital flows, migration, the spread of technology, and military presence.

As a result, some forms of corruption have also seen significant changes in recent years.  According toLouise I Shelley, ‘in recent decades, globalization has catalysed a sea change in the level of corruption. Money can easily be moved internationally, to major banking centers and offshore locales, via wire transfers. (…) In the new globalized economic order, worldwide corruption undermines states and permits the siphoning off of large amounts of national revenue with dizzying speed.’

Moreover, there has been an increase in private actors undertaking functions that traditionally belonged to governments – including regulation, dispute resolution, and framing responses precisely to issues such as corruption. Such a blurring of spheres in the ‘post-modern’ state matters greatly for our understanding of corruption. Yet, in much existing work, corruption is still understood as involving state officials: ‘the misuse of public goods by public officials for private ends.’ Such a focus cannot capture the reality of much contemporary corruption, as Shelley point out: ‘limiting corruption exclusively to the state sector is difficult in most developing (…) countries, as there is an absence of clear boundaries between state office and private business.’

The lack of attention paid to changes in the nature and organisation of contemporary states as a result of processes linked to globalisation, and the increasingly transnational nature of corruption, seriously undermines those approaches that see corruption as a country-specific issue linked to the public sector. By extension, attempts to develop anti-corruption strategies that build upon such an understanding are almost bound to fall short, as they tend to focus on institutional fixes that are either too generic or else wrongly targeted.

Therefore, we need to develop a better understanding of the interplay between transnational trends and the institutional architecture of individual states.  We also need a more detailed analysis of particular sectors – such as procurement, public administration, financial management, fiscal regulation and so on – as well as how specific anti-corruption interventions are influenced and affected by the interdependencies between them.  The projects being carried out as part of the new British Academy/DfID Anti-Corruption Evidence partnership will address some of these challenges by developing targeted interventions that reflect the reality of how corruption operates in practice.

Find out more here: British Academy appoints Paul Heywood to lead on major global anti-corruption research project.

And here: The British Academy and DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence Partnership.

Professor Paul Heywood is Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham and director of the British Academy’s project on anti-corruption. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (elected 2002), and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences (elected 2012). In 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

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