Corruption; a Western word to indicate the rest of the world is wrong

On a yearly basis, Transparency International publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index CPI ( This index gives an indication of the perceived level of corruption for each country in the world, and defines corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Transparency International recognizes three main kinds of corruption:

  • grand corruption (committed at a high level of government, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good)
  • petty corruption (where low- and mid-level officials abuse their power)
  • political corruption (where policies and procedures are manipulated by decision makers who want to sustain their power, status and wealth).

The 2013 index was recently published; it indicates the perceived abuse of power in 177 countries across the world, and below map shows where perceived corruption is highest (dark red) and where perceived corruption is lowest (yellow).

The perceived corruption index mapped to all countries in the world (original source: Transparency International)

Although there are remarkable shifts over the years, the general tendency is the same year after year. The Anglo-Saxon world (UK, US, Western-Europe, Scandinavia) has low scores, indicative for low perceived corruption. This holds as well for the Asian countries with a strong economy: Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and to a lesser extent S-Korea. High scores (high perceived corruption) are found for most African countries, Russia and the former Soviet states, the less stable Middle-eastern countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq) and some Central American economies (Honduras, Venezuela). N-Korea scores worst in the world (in good company of countries like Somalia and Afghanistan), while the best score in the world is for Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The Netherlands is at position nr 8, the US at 18. For full results visit this page. A first look at the rankings learns immediately that the richer a country, the lower the perceived corruption seems to be: the level of corruption is negatively correllated with BNP. In other words: the relative wealth of a country is a good predictor of the level of corruption in that country. From a cultural perspective, the most wealthy countries are individualistic cultures with a low power distance. Individualism indicates that people behave as individuals: they look after themselves and social bonds are relatively weak. In collectivistic societies on the other hands, people feel part of a strong in-group of family, friends, colleagues or other equals: they are very loyal to these groups and their own interests have lower priority than those of the group. The power distance of a country is another cultural characteristic: it indicates the degree to which people accept that one person has more status and power than the other person. In high power distance cultures (high-PDI) there is strong social inequality between members of society: status and power reside with a selected group of individuals. Low power distant cultures (low PDI) have more difficulty with this concept, and value to treat everybody equally: hierarchy in these countries is purely functional and practical. Collectivism and power inequality seem to be necessary conditions for corruption to flourish. Indeed the following plots underline the conclusion that the level of corruption correlates positively with PDI (power distance) and correlates negatively with IND (individualism). corruption_figure_2 This correlation  can be understood by looking at the earlier definition of corruption: in countries with high power distance people accept that power is unequally distributed, and that people with more power have more priviledges and can give themselves more rights than others. Also, in collectivistic cultures it is much more accepted that people form in-groups (groups of people that are very loyal to each other and feel connected) in which in-group members get better treatment than externals. Here the wealthy class that has the power forms a strong group, that takes good care of each other (at the expense of those who do not belong). The correlation of corruption and power distance and individualism seems obvious, given the definition of corruption that is used. We have to conclude that the definition of corruption is a very Western one: in a society where individuals take care of themselves, where everybody has equal rights and status differences are minimal, corruption – as defined above – by definition is low. The opposite holds as well: in a society where people belong to groups and want to belong to strong in-groups (where powerful people have more rights than others and where status differences are the norm), corruption by definition is high. When your definition of corruption is a very Western one, and you define corruption in moral terms (corruption is a bad thing), the rest of the world is morally inferior (in other words: corrupt). From collectivistic, high power distant cultures a more nuanced definition of corruption can be expected: although political corruption in these cultures will be formally disapproved of, people much more readily accept that it happens and that this is normal. They will even have less problems with ‘petty corruption’, being used to officials to use their power to get what they want. When speaking of corruption in moral terms, it is important to keep in mind that different cultures are different, and that the risk of cultural ethnocentrism (our culture is superior: we strongly disapprove of corruption) is high. The above presented corruption index than becomes an instrument for the Western world to tell the rest of the world they are ‘not good’, rather than a neutral instrument to point out that different cultures deal differently with an unequal power distribution.

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