Transparency International started when a rebellious World Bank employee quit to dedicated himself to exposing corruption. Now the organization claims the media’s attention for about one week a year when it publishes its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, an index that ranks countries in order of perceived corruption. Find out how the organization sources the data, what an important bias is in that data, and how that data ultimately impacts the world.
Alejandro Salas: I studied political science and I got very interested in all the topics related to good governance, to ethics in the public sector, etc., and I started working in the Mexican public sector, and—oh, the things I could see there. I was a very junior person working in the civil service, and I got all sorts of offers of presents and things in order to gain access to certain information, access to my boss—so very early on in my professional career, I started to see corruption from very close to me, and I think that’s something that marked my interest in this topic.
Ginette: I’m Ginette.
Curtis: And I’m Curtis.
Ginette: And you are listening to Data Crunch.
Curtis: A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.
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Curtis: We’ve spent a lot of time on our episodes talking to interesting people about what creative things they’ve done with data, like detecting eye cancer in children, identifying how to save the honey bees, and catching pirates on the high seas, but today we’re going to talk about a simple measurement. A creative and clever way to measure something that is incredibly hard to measure. And powerful results come from a measurement that puts some numbers behind a murky issue so people can start to have important conversations about it. And we’re going to look at an example that’s all over the news right now.
Ginette: This dataset that’s all over the news right now has an interesting history. While it draws criticism from some sources, it draws high praise from others. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s officially meet Alejandro, the man at the beginning of this episode.
Alejandro: My name is Alejandro Salas. I am the regional director for the Americas at Transparency International. I come from Mexico. I started 14 years ago, and I was hired to work mainly in the Central America region, which is also a region where there’s a lot of corruption that affects mainly public security, access to health services, access to education. In general the basic public services are broadly affected by corruption. That was my point of entry to this organization.
Curtis: Something important to note here is Transparency International’s origins. It’s a surprising story because Transparency International does work that was once frowned on, as hard as that is to believe, because it went against the context of the time.
Alejandro: Transparency International started 25 years ago, and 25 years ago, the topic of corruption . . . I mean corruption has existed for centuries. It’s nothing new, but it was not in the public agenda. You know, the national level, people, experts, governments, they knew there was corruption, but it was contained to the national level, and if you look at the newspapers from that time, there was very little reporting about corruption, and it was not part of the international public agenda. So Transparency International started precisely trying to put the topic of corruption in the global development agenda, so it became an issue. I can even tell you, at the time when we started, the World Bank didn’t talk about corruption. It was forbidden inside the World Bank to talk about corruption.
The perspective at that time was that corruption is a political issue that happens in the countries. It’s not our business; we’re a development bank, and if we give money to a corrupt country, in Africa or Latin America or in Asia, and it’s corruption, it’s not our problem. We’re a development bank. So that’s where we started. We started by saying, “well, no it’s not that easy because at the end of the day, this is public money that is going to regimes around the world that are misusing that money, which is meant to develop infrastructure projects and to produce development in those countries, and those countries are getting indebted, so that money has to be put into good use,” and that’s how we started. Actually our founder, who is a German, Peter Eigen, he used to work in the World Bank, and he was almost fired for trying to work in this area, and that’s why he decided to resign and start Transparency International. He was a little bit of a rebel inside of those international institutions, and that’s where the idea of producing this index early on in our institutional life became so important because we wanted to put it on the international agenda.
Ginette: Alejandro is referencing Transparency International’s well-known Corruption Perceptions Index. As you’ll learn, the word perceptions plays a key role.
Alejandro: The corruption perception index is a relatively simple tool, but it has proven to be very powerful. In the last 15 years, we have been doing it on an annual basis. Now, the corruption perception index what it gives us is a list. It gives us a ranking. In the last addition we have last year, we have almost 180 countries around in the world where we can see what is the level of perceived corruption for each of these countries. Now, I think it’s very important for the people who are listening to us that we specify we are talking about perceptions, and why perceptions and not actual facts? It’s because corruption, the nature of corruption is to be a very secret action. This means that the one that is asking for a bribe or the one that is paying a bribe, they of course have an incentive to keep this secret and to keep it quiet, so it’s very difficult to detect the actual corruption happening.
Ginette: Like Alejandro said, gathering accurate and comprehensive hard data on how corrupt governments are is impossible. The hidden nature of corruption makes measuring it really difficult, so Transparency International had to find the next best thing for measuring corruption.
Alejandro: You could argue, okay, if you look at the justice sector. Now let’s say you look at everything the justice sector is doing, how many people have been prosecuted, how many millions have been identified recovered, etcetera, that’s an important measure, but the problem you have is that actually what you would be measuring in that case would be how effective a justice system is, but you would not be properly looking at the level of corruption. So in Transparency International, we use as a proxy what is the perception that the people that are surveyed have of corruption in any given country in order to come with a list of countries as I mentioned as of nearly a 180 countries around the world.
Curtis: When working with data, it’s really important to understand its biases, which it inevitably has, because if your data has a powerful message, like this data does, some people will love it and some people will hate it, and you need to be able to acknowledge the data’s strengths and weaknesses. If the data is sound, and you explain those strengths and weaknesses well, the data can be very powerful and lead to change. This dataset has a particular bias that Transparency International freely acknowledges.
Alejandro: The perception Index we produce has a bias, and this is publicly known. It’s explained in all of our documents, and I will talk about it. We use surveys that are done by several prestigious institutions around the world. So for example, we use the surveys done by the World Bank, by the World Economic Forum, by the Bertelsmann Foundation here in Germany, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and so on and so forth. Why do we use these surveys is because they are surveys that are done mainly for investors and for the business sector; otherwise, we as a civil society organization, we would not have enough funding to do our own surveys around the world every year. So we basically have agreements with these organizations where we can use the data they collect in their own business surveys for our purposes. Now, the characteristic of these surveys is that they are basically asking investors, businessmen and businesswoman, market analysts and experts, they are asking them about the perception they have of corruption in the public sector of these 180 countries. So that’s an important bias. It’s mainly we ask the private sector about their perception of corruption in the public sector.
But of course, again, it’s important for example, I’ll just give you a quick example. In our last Index, Switzerland appears in the fifth place, seen as a not very corrupt country. Now that perception of Switzerland is a clean country, and somebody can come back to us and argue, “well, but you know, Switzerland has all these banking secrecy rules, and it’s very easy to go and buy luxury goods and to launder your money,” and they are right. They are absolutely right, so that’s a limitation we have. The Corruption Perception Index again is looking at what’s the opinion of the private sector, and in general, the public sector of Switzerland is relatively clean.
Ginette: But even with this data’s limitations, it also has had and continues to have very positive impacts. Part of that is the momentum it’s gained by producing this report annually for 15 years. As a quick FYI, there’s a story in this next section that may be too sensitive for the ears of young children, so take what precautions you think are necessary.
Alejandro: At least this Perception Index was the first global effort to produce something that was relevant for all corners of the world to be able to make comparisons. I think it’s very powerful as a marketing tool because, we as an organization, and all around the world, every time we publish this index, we guarantee that roughly for one week, the attention of the media and of many governments around the world is around the numbers in the index, so it really puts the spotlight on this topic. You cannot let go the topic easily because as it happens with any table where you can compare countries and scores, it’s very attractive to try to see if Mexico is doing worse or better than Brazil or if France is now above Spain. You know, it’s a little bit like comparing soccer scores, not who’s doing better.
The Perception Index is something very broad. If you want, it’s very high level because if you compare countries, it doesn’t really give you policy recommendations. Oh, where do you need to improve, but it opens the door for conversations, and that’s where the richness of this index comes because every time we publish, we will have some governments that will simply say, you know, Transparency International, you are a bunch of dirty people. You are probably financed by the US government, by the CIA, and I don’t believe in your stuff. Others will say that the methodology doesn’t work and, you know, you have complaints, but you have another group of countries whose governments will say, “okay, I recognize I have a problem. I need to deepen the dialogue with you. What recommendations do you have? What can we do to improve? What can we do better?” So that’s a door opener.
Once we open doors and we can have dialogue with the government, there are many other things that can take place. For example, probably one of the most important ones is that we can have a window in many countries, our partner organization at the local level have a window open to the public where any person who feels they have been a victim of corruption or that has been a witness of corruption, what they call a whistleblower, they can approach us and say, well, I have this problem. I cannot open a shop, a little flower shop, because the municipal authorities are asking me to pay $5,000, which I don’t have. You know, we’re talking about people who have very low income.
So, we take their cases, and we use our name, and our power to influence and engage in dialogue with authorities, so we bring the global brand, the global weight of Transparency International into a discussion with local authorities, and that many times has resulted in many times in ordinary people, low-income households that are able to open a small business, that are able to register their kids at school, and there are some very dramatic stories. There was one, sorry, I don’t remember the exact country in Africa, but for example, there was a guy who he was in charge of authorizing who out of a group of people were allowed to access housing subsidized by the government, very low-income families. This guy was asking for sexual favors from women to sign those papers for them to have access to the housing, and this guy was infected by AIDS, you know, he was a carrier of AIDS, so that made it very dramatic because he was not only asking for sexual favors to be able to give people something they deserved, but at the same time, he was infecting people with AIDs, and it was something very dramatic, and thanks to our intervention, we were able to identify this individual, and then this individual was of course punished, and then we could stop that horrible thing that was going on.
You will notice that there’s no single country that is free of corruption. You have some that are doing much better than others, and that’s completely out of the question. That’s a fact, but there is corruption in every country, so everyone should care about it.
Curtis: The data that Transparency International gathers and extracts insights from is a simple measure and yet it allows them to wield a profound power for good because it puts them on the international stage to fight corruption.
Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index came out Feb. 21, 2018, and you can now see how your country did in the latest results at Transparency.org.
Ginette: A huge thanks to Alejandro Salas for speaking with us, and as always, check out datacrunchpodcast.com for show notes and attribution.