Can corruption be gauged? Why has Russia fared so poorly in the global corruption index in recent years, “vying” with Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan for a spot at the bottom of the rankings? Are the results trustworthy? Robin Hodess, the head of research at Transparency International who oversees the annual release of the Corruption Perception Index, shares her view of the problem in an interview with Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI) correspondent Vladimir Novikov during her visit to Moscow in early May.

RAPSI: People, regardless of their occupation, are fond of various ratings. This is graphically illustrated by law firms’ top executives. They see high rankings not only as an indicator of buoyant demand for their services, but also as sufficient grounds to look down upon their rivals. Few, though, take such surveys seriously. Many people in Russia treat the annual publication of the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) as a game of sorts, meaning there is nothing in this rating that we do not know. Do you think such an approach is justified?

H.: For us, fighting corruption is not a game. There is something very serious to it that keeps such indices from being reduced to an entertainment similar to musical hit parades. There must be someone responsible enough to tell the governments in certain countries about the impression they create.
Every year, after the index is published, we start receiving questions from authorities and ordinary people in many countries. The questions asked most frequently are why a country has not made progress over a year or why high-profile corruption scandals have not lowered a country’s ranking.
 As for us, we see the index only as a platform, as an instrument allowing us to put forward our main question - how can one explain that the majority of countries have a poor record in fighting corruption? Why do the governments in some countries invariably refuse to take appropriate measures every year? The index is a starting point for conversation – it is not something to draw comfort from or, conversely, to humiliate someone.

RAPSI: Russia is ranked 154th of 178 countries included in the 2010 CPI released last October. The Russian authorities were displeased, although they issued no official comments. Skeptics have promptly questioned the scoring method. What method do you use?

H.: Let me tell you that comparing your country to others that ended up in the same place might be detrimental to one’s mental health. One should look at the whole cluster of countries that have rankings similar to your country’s. This gives much more food for thought (Ed. - Russia is placed in the same group as Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan, the latest CPI shows).
As for the scoring method per se, Transparency International interviews businessmen, investors and other experts who have relevant information. Then we analyze the data of 12 to 14 national and multinational surveys, which are conducted once a year, standardize them and make a consolidated table where all the replies are ranked on a zero-to-10 scale. A zero would indicate the highest level of perceived corruption while a 10 would indicate the lowest level.
I would like to note that we are talking about perception, viewpoint – and nothing else. It is not our viewpoint, but these are rather the opinions of many people surveyed throughout the year.
We only analyze the information.

RAPSI: People tend to have subjective opinions. As a result, if government executives are disappointed with the results, they have reason to state that the index is fully biased.

H.: The opinion polls underlying the index could be split into two categories. Some polls target the businessmen who work in a country and know something about it. Other polls are conducted to get experts’ opinions. For example, we use surveys conducted by The Economist magazine. Experts give their assessment of the situation in many countries, not only in Russia.
If we come across an expert who has negative view of, say, your government, his opinion will be counter-balanced with other experts’ assessments who have negative information about other countries’ governments. Since we have many experts on many countries with different points of view, we get an arithmetic average, so to say.
Meaning, any emotionally-charged negative assessment of a country by one or two experts would be ironed out. In addition, we draw on balanced analyses by authoritative sources - few people will say ratings by, say, The Economist, are abound in rash emotional assessments.
Moreover, some time ago, to measure our surveys’ objectiveness, we compared data from our surveys of businessmen and experts that we use for index purposes with data from the surveys of people that we use to compile our annual Global Corruption Barometer. The survey results have almost completely agreed - and not only for Russia.
There is a political aspect to all this. Although perception cannot be measured, it also plays a significant role. What matters in the first place is a favorable investment climate - that is, what people expect of a country. This cannot be ignored.

RAPSI: Do experts whom you interview have particular complaints about the country? Or do the experts’ unfavorable views apply to all countries among which Russia has been ranked in recent years?

H.: Of course, experts have mostly similar views of the countries included in the cluster along with Russia. This includes their views of governments, the extent of corruption pressure brought to bear on businesses and administrative barriers. They differ in details.
In some countries, governments exert stronger administrative pressure, but corporate raids are less common. In other countries, corporate raids are a bit more frequent phenomenon, but governments are more committed to the fight against corruption. There are no – and there can’t be - special reasons for Russia being placed at the bottom of the ranking. It is just that experts replied in the negative to the majority of the questions they were asked.
The main thing is that the CPI gives no reply to the essential question why a country ended up with such a low rating. The index only states a fact – this has happened. And gives no clue as to what should be done to rectify the situation. It shows that ordinary people and experts are concerned about the lack of progress in launching anti-corruption reforms or by a government’s ineffectiveness in tackling the problem. This highlights the importance of further research that is expected to answer the question why corruption is so pervasive and how it can be tackled.

RAPSI: The CPI has been released since 1995. Are there any examples of a country’s index soaring sharply, say, in a year’s time?

H.: There is a methodological problem. It is hard to use the CPI as a universal measure of changes over lengthy periods of time. However, this does not mean that there are no countries that keep track of the Transparency International ratings published annually and take steps to improve their corruption tackling records.
Many countries treat the CPI very seriously and its indicators are officially included in their national counter-corruption strategies. Even with all the methodological reservations, the main thing that we see is that no country follows a strictly upward curve. It would be more appropriate to talk about sine curves - one year things get better a bit, but next year the situation deteriorates as much. This can be ascribed to many factors, say, to election cycles.
Let’s take Colombia and Liberia, for example. In the case of Colombia, the situation improved drastically several years ago, but later this trend changed to the opposite. In the case of Liberia, we had also recorded some positive trends, which at some point gave way to downward dynamics. Clearly, the authorities of both countries lacked consistency in addressing the problem.

RAPSI: Talking about election cycles, Russia now stands right on the threshold of a new cycle. Elections to the parliament’s lower house are scheduled for December and the presidential election for March next year. It is commonly believed that in the run-up to the elections,  authorities tend to widely resort to populist measures that tend to improve the situation in the country in the short term. Can we expect that Russia will have a higher ranking in 2011 than a year earlier?

H.: Yes, this is a likely scenario, but the ranking is not going to improve drastically since the sources that we rely on in our research are not subject to populist outbursts in authorities’ activities, to put it mildly. Experts are not easily taken in by election campaign promises. Therefore, a higher ranking is possible, but it is unlikely to be an altogether different place in the rating.
I would also like to say that, for research purposes, we use data and sources not for one, but for two previous years. So, to compile the 2011 CPI, we will analyze information not only for the current year, but also for 2010. This approach helps trim not only the election campaign vigor of some government executives, but also short-lived scandals, including corruption scandals, that are attendant on any election campaign.