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Mismeasuring Corruption Lets Rich Countries Off the Hook

Conventional global corruption rankings are not only biased and one-dimensional, but also ultimately misleading and harmful. Only by assessing the problem across multiple dimensions can we begin to see how it manifests in different contexts, including rich countries that tend to be considered above reproach.

WASHINGTON, DC – “In an increasingly performance-oriented society, metrics matter. What we measure affects what we do,” argued the 2008 report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance. “If we have the wrong metrics, we will strive for the wrong things.”

The Commission was challenging the primacy of GDP as the metric of development. But the same observation applies to corruption, which is conventionally – and misleadingly – measured as a one-dimensional problem.

Global corruption indices, including Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Index, assign a single score to countries. These metrics consistently show that rich countries are “very clean” while poor countries are “highly corrupt.” For example, the 2023 CPI ranks the United Kingdom (scoring 71) as the world’s 20th least corrupt country, much cleaner than China (42) and Brazil (36). Most CPI users, including media outlets, companies, and analysts, interpret these numbers as a fact.