Other than the question of definitions, few issues have so thoroughly stymied the comparative study of corruption as that of measurement. Types and amounts of corruption vary among, and within, societies. Theory tells us that these contrasts reflect political and economic influences, history, and culture, and in turn affect societies and their development in important ways. But the difficulty of measuring corruption has long made it difficult to make such comparisons, to test hypotheses, and to build sound, comprehensive theories.
For many years, this problem was of concern mostly to academic analysts. But recently a variety of forces have put corruption back on the international policy agenda. These include, inter alia, the globalization and growing competitiveness of the world economy, and a resulting awareness within international aid and lending agencies, and on the part of private business, of the costs of corruption. Other influences include movements to ban international bribery by domestic legislation (the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act), or by international agreements (the OECD Anti-Bribery Treaty, and the OAS Anti-Corruption Convention); concern about the cost and efficacy of international development programs, and over the role corruption might play in perpetuating poverty; and the end of the Cold War, which reduced tolerance for corruption among ideological allies.
This revival of interest has spurred innovative attempts to measure corruption, often as a part of more general efforts at reform. Both, however, often reflect the worldviews of business and development interests. "Corruption" as an operational concept is becoming synonymous with bribery, its impact judged increasingly in terms of economic development. Few would dispute the importance of those concerns, but they have fashioned a new orthodoxy about corruption mirroring the broader "Washington consensus" over trade, aid, and development. With that has come a tendency for rich comparative concepts and findings to be overridden by a narrower vision treating corruption