A University of Waikato researcher has called Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, released this week, a biased survey based on flawed methodology that reinforces global stereotypes.
In a research paper titled The Visual Politics of Corruption, published in Third World Quarterly, Dr Olli Hellmann, Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Waikato, says although corruption is essentially invisible, the anti-corruption industry continues to use images that reinforce stereotypes of a “corrupt” developing world that needs to be saved by the “clean” North.
Transparency International (TI), the main non-governmental organisation working to end corruption worldwide, released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index this week, with New Zealand placing 1st out of 180 countries in the survey.
“Developed countries, including New Zealand, always rank fairly highly in this survey, yet we know we’re not immune to corruption. The way corruption is being measured and visually represented by TI serves to cover up the North’s role in transnational webs of corruption,” he says.
His research analysed photography competitions run by TI, the interactive world map it uses to illustrate “highly corrupt” and “very clean” countries and TI’s logo.
Dr Hellmann said imagery used to advertise TI’s photo competition, which seeks photos illustrating the effects of corruption, alluded to the global South. One image using a person of colour, the second an “exotic” scarf on a wrist, images often associated with the developing world. Winning photographs also overwhelmingly depicted images from developing countries.
“Where are the photos of a bank in London or the charging bull of Wall Street?”
He said the index’s methodology relies on surveys from experts in the different countries from businesspeople, journalists to NGO workers, but as corruption was invisible, he questioned how they were able to make any assessment.
“We know corruption by its nature is not something we can illustrate, and we certainly can’t just ask a country how corrupt it is, yet the pool of photos collated by Transparency International each year has played an important role in constructing a visual representation of corruption,” he said.
He also says, despite working for more than two decades, the anti-corruption industry has done little to reduce corruption worldwide but instead has often served the political and economic interests of the North through policy development like forcing free trade on developing countries or weakening states through programmes of structural adjustment.
Dr Hellmann said the conversation needed to move on from focussing on corruption and instead working on building strong institutions and businesses in countries and developing good governance, where corruption would struggle to take root.
He created his own photography project alongside his research, using images from London and setting them alongside stereotypes of the developing world. His fictional place, Paraíso, effectively turns London into a banana republic.
“I want people to question their stereotypical views of the North as “clean” and the developing world as “corrupt”.”