THE LATEST ranking of the Philippines in the corruption index of Transparency International should not come as a surprise. Despite the high-profile cases filed by the Aquino administration against former President Gloria Arroyo and her officials, a corruption-free bureaucracy is still a long way off.
The country remained in the bottom half of the annual rankings, placing 105th among 176 in the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012. On a scale of zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), the Philippines scored 34. In 2011, it was ranked 129th out of 183, but Transparency International said direct comparisons should not be made given the new methodology employed this year.
Malacañang was quick to credit the improvement to the Aquino administration’s “resolve to tread the straight path of good governance,” though it admitted that much work still needed to be done. Administration officials are dreaming if they think corruption has been addressed with the prosecution of officials of the previous regime and the filing of charges against them in court.
Corruption remains rampant in the lower levels of government, in the form of metro or local traffic enforcers preying on motorists, taxmen shaking down small businessmen, City Hall and municipal clerks victimizing applicants seeking building or business permits, and so on.
Notice how everyone seems to know of someone who simply paid his or her way to get a driver’s license? No wonder there are people who barely know how to drive roaming the streets, some even driving public transport vehicles. Dismayed citizens are also witness to local governments digging up portions of streets just recently paved, or changing working street lamps with new ones, or repairing sidewalks that don’t need it—all to pocket public funds.
Even in the judiciary, there are persistent reports of corruption involving regional trial court judges who issue temporary restraining orders and even decisions for a fee.
The problem in the provinces, where corruption occurs far from the prying eyes of concerned citizens’ groups and the media, is worse, as evidenced by substandard bridges and other public works projects that buckle under heavy rains.
The campaign to rid the bureaucracy of corruption should not be confined to headline-grabbing cases. This may embolden those at the bottom to think that this administration is only after the big fish. The government should embark on a more aggressive campaign to curb corrupt practices in the lower levels. It can focus on agencies that have time and again been the subject of public complaints (more rightly than wrongly), such as the Bureaus of Customs and of Internal Revenue, the Department of Public Works and Highways, agencies attached to the Department of Transportation and Communication, and many local government units.
Every week, the BIR and Customs hold a press conference to announce the filing of charges against private persons and companies suspected of tax evasion. The people will be happy to see them scheduling a weekly press conference to announce the filing of charges against their own erring employees. This can have a chilling effect on those who refuse to mend their ways.
Transparency International chair Huguette Labelle sums up broadly the survey results: “Among the countries scoring very poorly in the index (Haiti, Venezuela, Iraq, Burma, North Korea), many are failed states characterized by the repression of human rights, social inequality and ingrained poverty. Countries at the top of the index (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada), while not perfect, are generally characterized by a transparent and responsive public sector, and strong institutions including the judiciary, and where there are reliable means of holding public officials to account.”
President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda knows what has to be done. Reacting to the survey results, he said the anticorruption drive remained a work in progress and that “transparency needs to be instituted across all government agencies, whether on the national or local level.” He added: “There are still bumps that need to be evened out for the playing field to be truly leveled. In many cases, justice remains to be served.”
The campaign to weed out corruption in government will be a success only when the citizens themselves say so—because it is they who directly deal with these agencies, and often get stung in the process.