Critical Reflection of the Definition of Corruption and Approaches to Measure it

Por: Michel Levien González | Posted on July 14, 2021

Corruption has proven particularly resistant to definition. There are myriad definitions —a few are discussed below—, but Anti-Corruption academia, governments, civil society, inter-governmental organizations, and the international community in general, have yet to come to a singular and orthodox definition of the word.

Is a Singular Definition Necessary?

Experts have been quick to opine on the issue; some interjecting that

“[Perhaps] it is not possible to find a precise definition of corruption, [because] it is very difficult to identify all the key ways in which it presents itself […] [However, perhaps] knowing how to identify corruption, the harmful effects it has on [the] collective, and repressing it more efficiently is more important than defining it”

(Rocha Furtado, 2015).

This argument has gained some traction; however it is hard to ignore the extent to which national policies and laws are influenced and shaped by accords in the international arena. Pozsgai-Alvarez J. affirms that corruption has been turned into an omnibus term designed to encompass many types of human malfeasance, and he is correct. However, he is likely misguided in characterizing corruption as a “murky and morally-loaded” term (Pozsgai-Alvarez, 2020, pp. 434-435), but because there is no unified definition, his suspicions are warranted. As mentioned, now more than ever, national reform follows criteria set by international bodies which are guided by researchers in policy, academia, and think-tanks. If national and international law are to remain avant-garde, then countries passing these laws must stay attuned to the “climate of the era”, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg —citing Paul Freund— often remarked (Bowden & Fitzpatrick, 2018) (Shenker, 1971); a unified definition of corruption could serve as the weathervane. There is nothing “murky and morally-loaded” about that.

Widely Accepted Definition

The widely-accepted definition of corruption —the “(deliberate) mis/abuse of entrusted power for private gain” (Kubbe, 2020, p. 19) (Mungiu-Pippidi & Fazekas, 2020) (Transparency International, n.d.)— is not without issues. Popularized by Transparency International, it is actually a streamlined concept condensing the spirit of many definitions that came before it. Before critiquing this common definition, a brief acknowledgment of some influential others is due.

Other Authoritative Definitions

Joseph Pozgai-Alvarez (Pozsgai-Alvarez, 2020) remarks on the following definitions:

  • “[Behavior] of public officials which deviates from accepted norms in order to serve private ends”(Huntington, 1968);
  • “[The situation where] an agent betrays the principal’s interests in pursuit of her own”(Klitgaard, 1988);
  • “[The] abuse or misuse of [a public] office of trust for private gain”(Moodie, 1980); and
  • “[Behavior] which deviates from the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding gains”(Nye, 1967).

Pozgai-Alvarez (2020, p. 436) notes that these definitions (i) address improper intent, private benefit, and damage to fiduciary relationships, and (ii) are broad enough to include conduct outside the public sector.

The above definitions approach the matter systematically and identify elements common to deceptive acts customarily thought of as corrupt. This is a refreshing approach compared with several definitions which are specific to the point that they appear to be statutory text criminalizing particular conducts (and excluding others). Notably all four definitions cited above:

  1. Assume corruption requires the perpetrator to act in disregard of norms; a violation of norms (note “deviates”, “betrays”, and “abuse or misuse”);
  2. Require that the corrupt have a fiduciary duty and exploit it; a position of privilege or trust (note “deviates … to serve private ends”, “betrays the principal”, “abuse or misuse of … an office of trust”, and “deviates from the formal duties”); and
  3. Necessitate that the wrongdoer benefit to the detriment of the trustor; improper gains (finally, note “deviates … to serve private ends”, “betrays … in pursuit of her own [interests]”, “abuse or misuse … for private gain”, and “deviates … because of private regarding gains”).

The common definition of corruption is acceptable in that it adopts the three elements identified above to a degree:




Violation of norms

Position of privilege or trust

Improper gains

Abuse of entrusted power for private gain

It adopts (A) “violation of norms” because a person charged with entrusted power is expected to use it, not to abuse it; and (B) “position of privilege or trust” because, without a fiduciary relationship, a dishonest action, albeit undesirable, is devoid of deception; no trust is “betrayed”. However, arguably the element (C) “improper gains” is present only to an acceptable degree because the word “private” could be interpreted to imply that no matter the action, if it creates a public benefit, it cannot be deemed corrupt.

True, all acts carried out in (A) abuse of (B) entrusted power for (C) private gain are corrupt. However, some such acts carried out for public/non-private gain can also be corrupt. Countless examples of public works which are carried out and which do benefit the public show that the notion of public benefit does not negate the presence of corruption.

Nonetheless, use of “private” insinuates all acts which benefit the public must necessarily be non-corrupt. Further, by requiring that such gains be private, we run the risk of an acute legal mind in the service of the corrupt (of which there are many) concocting convoluted arguments to “weasel out” of corruption charges (legal or otherwise).

There is no need to circumscribe the fruit of corrupt acts to the private sphere; the potential issues noted above can be easily avoided by making a minor adjustment to the common definition and restating corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for improper gains.




Violation of norms

Position of privilege or trust

Improper gains

Abuse of entrusted power for improper gain

This proposed definition swimmingly adopts all three elements and is sufficiently narrow that most corrupt acts are covered by it.

Perception-Based Corruption Measurements

To control anything, aside from defining it, it never hurts to measure it. Over the course of the years several methods to measure corruption have been attempted. None is more famous than TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index, however there are others of note; the Rule of Law Index, by the World Justice Project; the Worldwide Governance Indicator on Control of Corruption, by the World Bank; the Global Competitiveness Report, by the World Economic Forum; and the (defunct) Bribe Payers Index, also by TI. These reports share one common theme; they are based on the perception of corruption. This, of course, is a necessity because the very nature of corruption is surreptitious. Without delving deeply into their methodologies, rest assured that they are not simple polls asking people about corruption around them. Rather, they use complex, carefully-worded, and carefully aimed questions to be answered by people who, at worst, understand the basic notion of corruption and, at best, are bona fide experts in the field.

These measurements, however, should be questioned and perhaps even substituted for more accurate alternatives. There are 3 principal reasons for this:

  1. They cannot be relied on scientifically: No gauge of perception, however sophisticated, can be more accurate and objective than accurate and objective measurements.
  2. Perception is Not Reality: When Kant (1781) referred to noumenon as an object “of a non-sensible intuition” he wanted to convey the notion of reality objective and free from passion, interpretation or opinion; reality as it is and not as we see it. Any person, regardless of their expertise in a given field, is subject to influence. Thus, no matter how precise and precisely aimed are the questions of a perception-based index, the answers always stand in the shadow of (at least some) doubt simply because they are issued by persons with particular contexts, passions, interpretations, and opinions.
  3. Opinions are Mercurial; and Modern Media has a Knack for Manipulating Them: Because of the advent of social media, fake news and opinion-forming techniques such as targeted advertising, it is now easier than ever to sway public opinion and to manipulate the perception of the public and, thereby, the results of perception-based measurements.

To counter this quantitative and objective models have been proposed. For instance, the model proposed by Mara Faccio (2006) observes the relationship between (A) the value of shares of stock of publicly-traded companies with important shareholders/executives that are connected to top politicians; and (B) events that affect or change the status of said politicians. Among the notable findings of Dr. Faccio are the fact that some companies’ stock prices have lost up to 25% overnight following news of a change in regime or of poor health of their favored politician.

In a similar vein, Julia Bladinieres Justo of Mexico has proposed a methodology wherein certain staple medications are selected, and their final purchase prices are cross-compared with (A) their median market prices; and (B) the prices effectively paid for them by all 32 Mexican state[1] governments. Her findings include, among others, that human insulin is overpriced by 86%, and that this considerable overhead is explained by corrupt dealings.

Quantitative measures are not, however, without flaw. Yes, they are more accurate, however they are not, and arguably cannot be perfect. Mainly because corruption is not a quantitative phenomenon by nature, but rather it is a human phenomenon. As such, some aspects of it may never be quantifiable. However, these methodologies are more trustworthy than perception and seem like a vastly more accurate, if imperfect choice. This is because, with the right parameters, their results can bring us closer to reality; at least closer than perception can.

References (Harvard – Anglia)

Bladinieres Justo, J., 2019. Una medición de la corrupción estatal en la compra de medicamentos [A measurement of state corruption in the purchase of medication]. Mexico City: n.a..

Bowden, M. M. & Fitzpatrick, E., 2018. ‘You can’t help being in awe’. [Online]
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[Accessed 6 January 2021].

Faccio, M., 2006. Politically connected firms. American Economic Review, 96(1), pp. 369-386.

Huntington, S. P., 1968. Political order in changing societies. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kant, I., 1781. Critique of Pure Reason. Edinburgh: R & R Clark.

Klitgaard, R., 1988. Controlling corruption. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kubbe, I., 2020. Corruption as a contested concept?. Laxemburg: IACA.

Legal Information Institute, Cornell University School of Law, n.d. Mens rea. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 January 2021].

Levien González, M., 2019. What do corruption and anti-corruption mean?. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 January 2021].

Moodie, G. C., 1980. On political scandals and corruption. Government and Opposition, 15(2), pp. 208-222.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. & Fazekas, M., 2020. How to define and measure corruption. In: A. Mungiu-Pippidi & P. M. Heywood, eds. A research agenda for studies of corruption. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 7-26.

Nye, J. S., 1967. Corruption and political development: a cost-benefit analysis. American Political Science Review, 61(2), pp. 417-427.

Pozsgai-Alvarez, J., 2020. The abuse of entrusted power for private gain: meaning, nature and theoretical evolution. Crime, law and social change, 74(4), pp. 433-455.

Rocha Furtado, L., 2015. Brazil; fighting corruption in the XXI century. Durham: Duke University School of Law.

Shenker, I., 1971. Freund urges congress to define bill of rights. The New York Times, 26 November.

Transparency International, n.d.. What is corruption?. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 January 2021].

United Nations, 2010. Travaux préparatoires of the negotiations for the elaboration of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drug and Crime.

[1] For ease, Mexico City is counted as a state;

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