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No Free Lunch
‘Kung walang corrupt…’

By Cielito Habito
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:50:00 08/03/2010

Filed Under: Governance, Graft & Corruption, Poverty

THE PRESIDENT?S campaign slogan, ?Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap,? inspired the theme for a discussion forum held last Saturday by the Galing Pook Foundation (GPF). The question addressed by the forum was: How do we go into the praxis of the slogan? In particular, how can the GPF, an organization devoted to excellence in local governance, help operationalize this credo?

Vince Lazatin, head of the Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN), spoke on the recent Philippine experience in corruption, and civil society efforts in combating it. I was assigned to speak on the country?s poverty experience and explain how bad governance and corruption have helped perpetuate it. Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo then described the changes he is introducing to make the local government units (LGUs) the vanguards in harnessing good governance in the country?s war on poverty.
It turns out that the Philippines has no shortage of laws and structures against corruption, as Lazatin pointed out. We actually have an impressive and elaborate legal and institutional framework for combating corruption in government, from the Constitution to various republic acts and executive orders and issuances. And yet, using internationally recognized measures developed by Transparency International and the World Bank, our country ranks among the highest in incidence of corruption and among the lowest in quality of governance, with recent years seeing further deterioration. Sadly, in our country, there is a world of difference between theory and reality. As always, it is in enforcement and implementation? and in recent years, in failure of institutions?where we have fallen apart miserably.

But there remain gaps in the legal framework as well. Lazatin identified two crucial items in the Constitution on which our lawmakers, for over two decades now, have been remiss in translating into the needed enabling legislation: the guarantee of freedom of information, and the ban on political dynasties. On the former, many of us were puzzled at the glaring absence of any mention in the President?s recent State of the Nation Address of the Freedom of Information bill, shot down near the finish line by the last Congress. No one beyond P-Noy?s innermost circle seems to know the real reason for this uncharacteristic omission; one can only hope it?s not an ominous sign that the enemies of transparency are gaining some headway in the new leadership.

As for poverty, the challenge remains daunting. Studies show that countries in Asia have managed to translate economic growth into faster rates of poverty reduction than elsewhere. Like a sore thumb, the Philippines stands out as an anomaly, where poverty actually increased since 2003 despite supposed record economic growth. Why can?t we bring down poverty? It?s certainly not for lack of government anti-poverty programs. Each of our last four presidents lined up an array of deliberate initiatives in an alphabet soup of acronyms, ranging from Cory Aquino?s Carp, CEDP, Sea, Lakass, and Tulong sa Tao; Fidel Ramos? Social Reform Agenda and CIDSS; Joseph Estrada?s Lingap Para sa Mahihirap; and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s Kalahi-CIDSS, CDD and 4Ps, among others. It was, rather, persistent obstacles to attaining these various programs? desired outcomes. And the obstacles were mostly linked to bad governance and corruption, thereby lending credence to P-Noy?s campaign slogan.

Among these obstacles, there are those beyond our control (but can nonetheless be managed), like natural hazards and calamities, natural resource limitations, precarious environments and the increasing threat of climate change. But there is a longer list of obstacles that we can control, including governance weaknesses, inadequate budgets, poor targeting, poor information base, man-made impediments to rural livelihoods and faulty intervention designs. Governance weaknesses include overcentralized (top-down) decision-making, weak horizontal and vertical coordination, weak LGU capabilities, politicized implementation of otherwise good programs, problematic (e.g., absentee) local executives and outright graft and corruption. I have many true stories to tell illustrating each of these difficulties, a number of which I have already shared in past columns.

Faulty intervention designs result from the propensity of government to favor programs that involve large-scale procurement (such as for fertilizers and hybrid seeds) for reasons that can again be traced to corruption. Interventions also fail when they neglect important non-economic considerations, such as historical and cultural underpinnings of poverty. Desired outcomes likewise elude unsustainable and fragmented interventions. An example of the latter is constructing schoolbuildings but failing to address problems of physical access by children to these schools via bridges across rivers, etc. Man-made impediments to rural livelihoods include monopsony (single-buyer) traders/processors and cartels that depress farm-gate prices, and informal lenders who capture the harvest of debtor-farmers.

Space limitations prevent me from describing various solutions offered in the forum to address these difficulties. But what provoked much interest was Robredo?s carrot-and-stick proposal to further empower good LGUs with greater authority and resources while imposing sanctions on non-performing ones. To me, this makes a lot of sense; after all, the war on poverty is being fought in local battles?and those fighting the local battles must be equipped to fight them well.

* * *

E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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