Corruption, primarily in government, has become a major issue in poor countries including the Philippines.

One of the reasons is that it’s there, like Mount Everest, having been around for decades in these countries, and having grown into proportions so monstrous it’s evident in every arena of public life.

Another reason is the international finance institutions’–for example the World Bank’s and the Asian Development Bank’s–relatively recent focus on it.

It’s logical enough. Corruption has so metastasized that these institutions now see it as a hindrance to foreign investments, which in their view is the key to economic development in the former colonies and present neo-colonies. (A neo-colony is a country that has the formal trappings of independence, but whose economic policies and governance are actually under foreign control.)

Bureaucratic extortion and irregularities in the awarding of government contracts–meaning the non-implementation of such rules as bids and bidding conditions, for example–not only add to the cost of doing business in the Philippines. They also mean unpredictable results in one’s ventures.

When a foreign investor stays away for these reasons, goes the argument, the result is that the employment that could otherwise have been generated doesn’t happen. The production of goods people can use or consume doesn’t take place. Economic growth suffers as a result.

Progressive economists like Alejandro Lichauco take exception to the argument that assigns a crucial role to foreign investments as a factor in economic development. They point out that the amount of employment generated by foreign ventures is often exaggerated, that foreign investors put in much less capital than conventional economists claim, and that they in fact make use of domestic credit facilities.

In any event, the World Bank and the ADB look at corruption primarily as a hindrance to foreign investments. Characteristically, the most recent ADB report on corruption in the Philippines is entitled “Improving the Investment Climate in the Philippines.”

And yet the most critical consequence of corruption is not its impact on the confidence of foreign investors, but on the citizenry in terms of inadequate social services, and even on the country’s prospects for the future. Corruption also kills. And as we have seen in the Philippines, corruption compromises the country’s future.

Filipinos are familiar with roads that wash away with the first rain, bridges that collapse, and buildings without fire exits–all made possible via the inspectors of these constructions’ looking the other way in consideration of the usual SOP (“Standard Operating Procedure”: a previously respectable term that in the bureaucracy now means bribery).

When the inevitable comes–when a bridge collapses under less than the load it was built for, or when a fire breaks out–hundreds die and are injured. But not only kickback-built structures maim and kill. In November of 2004, Filipinos also learned that the medical services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines also administer expired drugs to soldier-patients. Such drugs are given away free by the drug companies. Using them instead of purchasing their still potent counterparts means that the funds thus “saved” can go into the bank accounts of the responsible officials. No one knows how many soldiers or the dependents of soldiers have died as a result.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education, one of the most corrupt government departments in the Philippines together with Public Works and Finance, has dumbed-down who knows how many people by making error-filled textbooks available to millions of school children.

The same department has also made sure that there will be more than the usual number of dolts among the citizenry in the future by hiring unqualified but politically-connected teachers. It also has a classroom shortage so severe thousands of children can’t attend school for weeks at a time every rainy season because their “classrooms” are actually the shade of the nearest mango tree.

The ADB report correctly observes that corruption is now “systemic and widespread across all levels of the bureaucracy”. But Tom Crouch, ADB Country Director for the Philippines, told a press conference that the will to implement reforms is not at issue in the Philippines, but rather “the pace of reform.”

Crouch said he was convinced of the Arroyo government’s commitment to reform, but said in the same breath that what is missing is “firm political will and commitment to implement the required policies and civil service reform.”

One can understand Crouch’s dilemma. The ADB report identifies the culprit as the bureaucracy–but the ADB nevertheless has to rely on the big bureaucrats who control the bureaucracy to reform it.

The biggest bureaucrat in the Philippines is the President, who occupies a post so powerful he or she can influence what laws Congress will pass and even how the Supreme Court will interpret them, on the basis of his or her domestic and foreign policies–or what pass for policies.

If she wishes, the President can also summarily dismiss corrupt officials in both the military and civilian bureaucracies. The President can convince the bureaucracy that she is truly committed to rooting out corruption by seeing to it that her associates and relatives as well as she herself are above suspicion for the same offenses.

Despite the vast powers available to the Presidency, no one who has occupied that post has used them to combat corruption. On the contrary. Cronyism–favoring one’s associates over others–has become a principal hallmark of the Presidency, as have the prosperity of relatives, and in most instances, the President’s own. The biggest and most corrupt officials are tolerated, their remaining in office assured by their closeness to the chief executive and by the excuse that nothing can be proven in court, while apprehending small-time crooks are held up as proof of government sincerity in combating corruption.

Why this happens is rooted in the elite monopoly over political power, which itself is assured by fraudulent elections in which who has the most money decides victory. Once elected, the official must pay off the debts, political or otherwise, he or she has incurred–and one of the modes of repayment is appointment to posts lucrative in the opportunities for corruption they provide.

What’s part of the problem cannot be part of the solution. The dominance of the political and economic elite over the Philippine state being at the root of corruption in government, it stands to reason that the crooks cannot be their own prosecutors.

Only the participation of the poor and the powerless in governance can address corruption. Growing public awareness of its disempowerment as a critical factor in government corruption has thus led to vigorous efforts at broadening political participation.

But the elite that benefits from its monopoly of power, and which uses that power to rob the citizenry of public funds to the detriment of the social services to which it is entitled, will not be a party to the eradication of the very conditions that enable it to abuse public power in behalf of its private interests.

Every effort to broaden political participation, whether through authentic party- list groups representing marginalized sectors, or through mass movements and sectoral organizations like women’s and labor groups, is thus being met with police refusal to grant permits and/or violent police dispersals–and in extreme cases, with harassment, threats and assassinations.

It’s logical enough from the elite standpoint. The democratization of political power is the first condition for ending its monopoly over power and one of its consequences, “widespread and systemic” corruption. For the democracy to which it pays lip service to actually happen would be the worst of disasters for it.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

Join the Conversation

No comments

  1. We have improved during the past few years…we have been gaining more methods and increasing the rating of corruption. Doom is looping over our country. Greed is what makes men live by this. He wants to have more than his neighbor. Honest people have been tempted too, yet only a few are strong enough.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *