The Middle East’s Glass Revolution

Every couple of years, mostly American journalists and pundits talk about corruption-inspired uprisings. The former Soviet Union had its orange, rose and tulip revolutions for the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan respectively. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring looked like it would bring greater transparency and transparency to at least 8 countries. Many consider the Arab Spring a failure. The publication of – and especially commentary around governance in the Middle East — Transparency International’s (TI) 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index reflects this mood.

Most have long considered Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (or CPI) a bell-weather for moods and attitudes about the country itself, rather than specific policies, laws, administrative decisions and law enforcement actions undertaken in any particular place. The index uses unscientific surveys and probably reflects national income more than anything else. Yet, like the World Bank’s Doing Business survey, boiling down countries’ policies, and performance on those policies, to just one number, offers a yardstick and product too irresistible to pass up. The results represent the ultimate simulacrum of reality – both reflecting corruption levels and actually making them.

How can TI actually contribute to corruption in the Middle East? Everyone knows that, in the words of Transparency International analyst Kinda Hattar, “in order for Arab countries to improve, they must ensure effective transparent systems that allow for accountability are in place.” Governments from Rabat to Tehran must, “put an end to political corruption in all its forms… protect freedom of expression and stop persecuting anti-corruption activists, whistleblowers, and civil society organisations.” Everyone supposedly knows they don’t ensure transparency and accountability. They don’t end political corruption or protect freedom of expression. They don’t stop persecuting anti-corruption activists. We expect it. So they can…even though they shouldn’t.

Qatar provides a simple example from the region, showing how these abstract generalisations and platitudes reflect the usual colour revolution/Arab Springers’ disappointment with political reform, rather than a cold calculus of (anti)-corruption.

Perceptions about corruption in Qatar in 2017, as the jurisdiction holding a FIFA event, have been overly tied to a contract/event sponsored by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). Corruption in the FIFA is well-known and has been reported about at length. Perceptions obviously wrongly conflate corruption in football and Qatar’s political and administrative institutions. Okay, Qatari officials did engage in bribery. But the FIFA resides in Switzerland. Why didn’t Switzerland’s ranking suffer similarly? Most professional/academic rankings of corruption would “control for” these kinds of one-off events. Yet, the TI CPI does not use – and has never used — any statistical methods of removing such noise.

Noise affects such measurements far less than their excessive volatility. Volatility refers to the natural tendency for any ranking to wag wildly from one period to the next. Middle Eastern countries’ CPI rankings depend on what happens in other countries. In Qatar’s case, modest improvements in very corrupt places could – in certain circumstances- cause their rank to rise quickly. However, in situations like this, improvements in these corrupt jurisdictions do not mean Qatar got worse. Qatar ranks very well in the Index — making its fall far more likely a statistical artifice. Far from being a region in decline (as Transparency International’s analysis suggests under the title “Middle East and North Africa: A very drastic decline”), the dynamics of improvement can make some places like Qatar look worse. Of course, we don’t see TI scores wildly swinging around. But, given my own experience with other types of indices, human intervention and excess aggregation tend to dampen down these changes in most places – making a few observations very subject to larger jumps.

What would a more objective analysis look like?

For a starter, the perceptions index could ditch perceptions altogether. We now have access to “crime incidence” data (namely the percent of any population reporting the payment of objective bribes) by households and businesses. The discrepancies between the CPI and these reliable indicators have been commented on so often in the literature, that I do not even need to repeat this here. The CPI is a survey of surveys. The underlying surveys rely on scores from “experts” using consisting of political scientists, pundits, and surveys of supposedly “informed persons”. Why not rely on more real experts – with investigator experience, legal experience, or experience living in corrupt jurisdictions? And especially experience in the countries they score?

Behind the noise generated by the ups and downs of countries like Qatar lies a revolution by evolution. Countries like Qatar have put in place new laws and regulations containing corruption. Such a “glass” revolution – or an abrupt change brought on, in part, by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – has changed the way these public administrations deal with citizens and the way they hand out information. The glass revolution has come from automating border crossing and customs clearance procedures in some places. Most of these countries have local media and watchdog group interest that did not exist a decade ago. Qatar – to continue with my example country – has an Administrative Control and Transparency Authority. Who would have thought of that a decade ago?

Corruption undermines governance in most of the Middle East and heavily taxes places like Qatar. I do not deny this. Yet, quantifying and then debating our personal and collective opinions about bribery in places like Qatar serves us in the US and Europe poorly – and those in the Middle East worse. Labelling countries as chronically corrupt “reifies” such corruption… as everyone from investors to their own civil servants expect such corruption supposedly identified by these numbers. A glass revolution – fomented by organisations like Transparency International – has succeeded where all the Arab Springs in the world have failed. One person’s decline represents another’s advance. All we need now are objective measures which record that fact.

Bryane Michael




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