Saturday, March 15, 2008

Corruption perceptions and indices

Corruption in public and personal life tradiationally has defied measurement. It is somewhat irksome when Western consultancy companies come out with corruption barometers and indices that purport to show how the Danes (rank 1 in 2007) are the least corrupt and the Somalis (rank 179) the most (Wikipedia entry here). I have always wanted to write a bit about some of the fallacies behind this corruption league table exercise that at best is just another list serving as fodder for lazy op-ed columnists and at worst engenders negative stereotyping of the peoples of a nation (the war torn, poor nations happen to be at the bottom). Fortunately, I did not have to spend time and write that screed because Matthew Engel, a columnist at the Financial Times has written a great opinion here.

A number of thoughts come to mind looking at this index. The first is that it is obviously spurious, because it purports to measure the immeasurable. The second thought is that the compilers are perfectly aware of this, but also aware that dim-witted columnists like this one are far more likely to take notice of a league table than a learned treatise.

The real corruption of the west, though, is incapable of being measured because it lies within each of us. Any half-decent corporation – any half-decent employee – wrestles with this. There is no clear red line that separates straight from bent. It is especially difficult in what you might call the liberal professions. Will a doctor be influenced in his clinical judgment because one drug company has sucked up to him and a rival hasn’t? And it gets even harder in those jobs where the frontier between work and leisure is necessarily vague – a politician, for example, or a newspaper columnist.

For both, socialising is part of the job: you have to meet people. Do I write more kindly about someone who is nice to me than about someone who’s horrid? Of course I do, if only subconsciously. Will my judgment be affected if they offer me a drink? Or dinner? Or a wad of cash? It gets easy to know what’s wrong – it’s not always easy to know what’s right.

I was reminded of advice that I got from bosses at a company I worked at a while back. I would trot out and present to them a fact filled PowerPoint document with Eureka! written on my face and expecting congratulatory whoops in short order; and here is what they would say: "Well, you know, as much as there are facts in this document, it is worthless in and of itself unless you have socialized it, lobbied for its cause and managed to steer the clients judgments appropriately".

I got tired of working there, but then, that is another story.

Rene’ Magritte, ‘La victoire’, oil on canvas, 28” X 21”, 1939 (from an auction book I own)

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