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Anti-Corruption in the Philippines: Lessons on Embeddedness

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After a campaign period marked by fervor and scandal, The Philippines, Southeast Asia’s “bastion of democracy”, successfully concluded its most recent set of presidential, vice-presidential, and senatorial elections. Filipino voters were swayed over a plethora of issues, including law and order, the economy, and foreign relations. Candidates, for the most part, offered a diverse set of platforms with approaches for each of these themes. Despite the emergence of new concerns among the Filipino electorate, however, this election also witnessed the return of a long-standing and central issue in Philippine politics: corruption.

The recurring nature of corruption as a central concern may seem odd, considering the impassioned rhetoric that Filipino politicians use when speaking against it, and the ever-growing list of anti-corruption legislation they pass. Consider that the Philippines’ anti-corruption laws have long been considered strong, and that this legislative framework is supported by no less than three different anti-corruption agencies. President Benigno Aquino III has even claimed that these measures were further bolstered over the course of his administration.

Recent history shows, however, that this slew of legalistic and bureaucratic anti-corruption measures, has had little impact on corruption. The Philippines’ score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, for example, has remained relatively stagnant over the past few years. Some argue that the Aquino administration has actually contributed to an increase in corruption, as evidenced by increases in both smuggling activity and the much-maligned Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The PDAF, which allocates resources to Philippine senators and congressmen for development projects, has long been criticized as an easy target for embezzlement.

When neither changes to bureaucracy nor improvements to legislation affect the perception of corruption, it may be time to turn to the explanatory role of culture. A study on parking violations committed by diplomats in New York, for example, concludes that norms related to corruption are deeply ingrained, and factors other than legal enforcement are important determinants of corruption behaviour.”  Another experiment, conducted on graduate and undergraduate students, makes a similar, though more conservative argument; while the propensity to engage in corrupt behaviour reflects the values and social norms that one grows up with, “…beliefs relating to corruption may change following a change in context.”

The Philippines is a prime example of a country whose citizenry has internalised a culturally embedded norm of corruption. This tradition dates back to the Spanish colonial period, when the “management of colonial government was effectively located 10,000 miles away”. This distance saw “public offices disposed in a number of ways, including through award, or through sale, or through a bid,” emulating the king’s habit of giving away “lands, properties, including public office to anyone who showed loyalty to him.” (Co 2007, 6) More recently, several presidential terms, from Marcos to Estrada to Macapagal-Arroyo, were marked by corruption scandal after corruption scandal, indicating not only a lack of political leadership, but tacit engagement in these behaviours. Filipino values themselves, including “the culture of pakikisama (esprit de corps),” (Co 2007, 131) or the notion of pakikipagkapwa-tao (a sense of regard for others), can be said to legitimize bribery or nepotism by placing these acts in the context of a sense of indebtedness for family or friends.

A history marred with corruption, leadership that has fallen to the wayside, and values that create legitimacy for exceptional behaviour have all contributed to the creation of a culturally accepted norm of corruption. In such an environment, those engaged in either grand or petty corruption are virtually able to operate with impunity. While the picture painted here is bleak, however, eroding the cultural embeddedness of corruption in the Philippines is far from impossible. Though some Filipinos are inclined to perpetuate corruption as a norm, many others are ready to push past the status quo.

The long road towards a cultural remedy for corruption starts by utilizing that segment of the population, namely by rebuilding civil society’s lost trust in the government, and strengthening engagement between both parties. The Philippines also has access to an established media presence, and a robust anti-corruption NGO network. While both can play valuable roles in both oversight and policymaking, current practices and legislation have disempowered these entities, according to the 2010 Global Integrity Report. Beyond this,  reinforcing the Philippines’ identity as a democracy, one values the right to free speech, can work towards reinvigorating the general public’s role. Widespread access to social media and smartphone technology means that overt displays of corrupt behaviour can be quickly reported to a wide audience; even platforms like Facebook can turn a private act of corruption into one that can be publicly shamed, contributing to the erosion of the norm.

Does this mean anything for the incoming government’s anti-corruption agenda? President-Elect Duterte’s mercurial temperament makes it difficult to predict his future performance, though recent flip-flopping on several promises indicates that the incoming administration is off to a rocky start. The announcement of his Cabinet, disconcertingly composed mainly of friends from his inner circle, is a far cry from the gender-balanced and youth-oriented picture originally painted by his camp. This spells trouble for an anti-corruption platform that already seems to be aiming for the wrong targets.

What is clear is that the iron-fist approach on which Duterte has built his base of support will not be enough to eradicate corruption. Indeed, whether or not the incoming government succeeds in curbing corruption will depend on its ability to leverage the ever-present sense of dissent within the soul of Filipino society.

References:

Co, Edna Estifania A., edited by Sarah Bracking. 2007. “Challenges to the Philippine Culture of Corruption.” Corruption and Development: The Anti-corruption Campaigns. 121-37. Palgrave Macmillan.

Joshua Mayo
Joshua Mayo is almost the proud owner of a Masters degree from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He received his Honours Bachelor of Social Sciences in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the same institution. While Joshua is generally an avid scholar of public policy and international relations, his more specific interests include good governance and anti-corruption in Southeast Asia, torture as a human rights issue, conflict in fragile states, and the process of democratization.

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