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Why doesn’t it improve?

/ 05:24 AM August 30, 2018

Corruption—it’s still alive and well. Transparency International (a recognized, independent expert on the subject) ranked the Philippines 111th out of 176 countries in 2017, down 10 spots from 101st in 2016. But the Philippines’ actual score of 34 was almost unchanged from 35 in 2016.

In 2008, though, it was much worse, with the Philippines ranking 141st out of 180 economies surveyed. While the country’s ranking has since then improved, the government’s goal of making it to the top one-third of all countries surveyed and be part of the “cleanest” nations group has a long way to go, and with a lot of catching up to do.

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The figure is well below the world average of 43, or the Asia-Pacific region of 44. It’s based on a scale of 0-100; 100 is very clean, while zero is filthy, corrupt. New Zealand (you should visit, a lovely country) with 89 topped the list; Denmark closely followed at 88. Singapore garnered 84, while both Thailand and Indonesia got 37. Somalia hit the bottom at 9, with South Sudan close at 12.

The Philippines was the worst among the traditional five Asean partners. This is disappointing, given the President’s avowed promise to eradicate corruption. Every president has faced a similar problem. Each has created an antigraft body: the Presidential Commission on Good Government under Cory Aquino, the Presidential Commission Against Graft and Corruption under Fidel Ramos, the National Anti-Corruption Commission under Joseph Estrada, the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Truth Commission under Benigno Aquino III (voided by the Supreme Court before it could even start), and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission under Rodrigo Duterte.

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None has achieved anything of significance. No big-time official has gone to jail through a final court decision. In fact, there’s almost nobody of wealth or influence who’s in jail. And until there is corruption, the big stuff—which is what matters—will flourish. Forget the small stuff, that’s simply annoying and would be nice if it were gone. But it’s the hundreds of millions and the billions of pesos that get stolen with impunity that is dragging the country down, and that remains unresolved.

The message is clear: If you’re going to steal, steal big. That has to be changed. But it won’t happen, until some really big fish are clapped in a crowded jail for life.

In his last State of the Nation Address, Mr. Duterte stressed that he would not tolerate corruption, and blamed it for the slow construction of public projects and ineffective implementation of social service programs. He has fired friends and political supporters linked to corruption, and vowed he would continue to. But his message would have been stronger if those terminated were taken to court, charged and convicted.

If he pushed harder for the approval of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, it could help, too. The law could play a central role in his anticorruption drive. But, instead, it’s gathering dust in both chambers of Congress. There is an executive order directing government agencies to be more transparent, but it needs a law to be more effective.

The approval of the FOI law, and actually putting people in jail, could provide a major boost to the country’s global anticorruption ranking. An effective anticorruption drive is among the key prerequisites in attracting more foreign direct investments, which will then help make economic growth more inclusive. But the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman have to be more ruthlessly effective than they are.

Empowering the press and convincing the public to report corruption could also help. But no one is going to report wrongdoing when impunity dominates, and when those who do are threatened with retribution by powerful people. Also, it’s not in Philippine culture to report wrongs, anyway. So, even though we’re convinced the President himself is not corrupt (despite the absurdities of Senator Trillanes) and has fired some officials for suspected corruption, any serious reduction has not been achieved.

And there won’t be, until some major corrupt officials are found guilty and put in an ordinary, overcrowded jail (400 prisoners in a cell designed for 100 people) with all the small, forgotten souls. Not in a special, well-supplied and ventilated room, because they end up corrupting as well the poorly paid jail officials. Fear of a life of hell in jail has to dominate the minds of the crooks in public office.

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I add the courts to this failure, because they just aren’t doing their job. I’m not blaming the judges who, in the main, do a sterling job, but the antiquated, underfunded and undermanned system. There’s also the proclivity to sue for almost any damn thing, thereby overcrowding the dockets of judges.

A ranking of 111th is not a good reputation to have for the Philippines. Time to really change it.

E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: corruption, editorial, FOI, Freedom of Information, governance, news, opinion, Philippines, politics, Transparency International
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