I was invited to deliver the fifth annual Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture Series last Saturday, and I drew for inspiration his 1960 Palanca Award winning play (written when he was 28), titled “The Largest Crocodile in the World.” It is described as a political satire, but the manuscript was lost in the Palanca archives, its loss ascribed to a politician who felt he was Adrian’s target. Here is a short version of the lecture:
The title rings a very large bell in today’s political environment, and may be an even more appropriate subject now than it was when Adrian wrote it 55 years ago. The author may have had Nostradamus-like qualities:
First, because 50 years after he wrote the play, we literally found a saltwater crocodile in Agusan, which nosed out the Australian crocodile that held the title “largest crocodile in the world.” Nosed out is not really the accurate word. The Philippine crocodile, Lolong, was a little over three feet longer and at least a hundred pounds heavier than the Australian crocodile.
Second, the Philippines also has a surfeit of human crocodiles who have increased in quantity and greed these past 50 or so years. They engage in what is called political corruption, defined as the “abuse of entrusted power by political leaders for private gain… Political corruption need not involve money changing hands; it may take the form of ‘trading in influence’ or granting favors that have poisoned our politics and threaten our democracy.” Moreover, these human crocodiles have created dynasties, and made corruption a family enterprise.
Like Lolong, some of his human counterparts have achieved international notoriety. In fact, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report 2004 had a table listing 10 of some of the world’s most notorious leaders over the previous 20 years, together with estimates of the sums that they had allegedly embezzled from their countries. The 10 most corrupt leaders on the list come from nine countries. It includes two Filipinos—Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. You can still catch it on the Internet under the title World’s Ten Most Corrupt Leaders.
But unlike Lolong, they do not attract tourists and create revenue for the Philippines. Exactly the opposite occurs: They divert toward themselves revenues meant for the country, and drive away investors; their desire for private gain has resulted in projects and policies that have impoverished rather than enriched the Philippines. They have been the scourge of our economic development all these years. This is our buwaya problem.
How have these buwaya impoverished rather than enriched the country? In 1960, the Philippines’ GDP per capita (measured in 2005 PPP$, the exchange rate that equalizes the cost of a US dollar’s worth of goods in all countries and used when you want to compare countries’ incomes accurately) data were higher than countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and China. By 2009, or 49 years later, the rankings had changed; the Philippines found itself at the bottom of the list. The reason: Over that period, the Philippines grew the slowest, its growth rate averaging only 1.58 percent a year, while the others all grew by over 3 percent a year (Table 1).
Table 1 shows that in 1960, the Philippines’ real per capita GDP was $1,314; Thailand lagged behind at $961, and China still further behind at $403. Forty-nine years later, Thailand’s per capita GDP was $7,794, and ours was only $2,808, with China and the other countries in between. Their growth rates are also posted.
What caused the difference in the growth rates of these countries? Studies (Sachs) have shown that the variable that contributes the most to the difference in growth rates between countries is government policies and institutions. In the case of the Philippines, this variable contributed (for the period 1965-1990) between 70 percent and 79 percent of the growth differentials. And who is most responsible for government policies and institutions? Our political leaders, of course. The buwaya.
You cannot believe that these buwaya and their political corruption are the cause? Here is another table which shows the political corruption in these countries and their growth, based on a World Economic Forum 2003 Executive Opinion Survey covering 102 countries (Table 2).
That survey showed that the Philippines was the only country in Asia that qualified as a highly politically corrupt country. The other countries above were considered medium politically corrupt. China showed low-to-medium political corruption. Note that China grew the fastest, and of course, the Philippines grew the slowest. That’s how corruption and economic growth are related.
Some counterfactuals: If we had grown as fast as China grew between 1960 and 2009 (6.18 percent), our per capita income in 2009 would have been $24,814, or almost $22,000 more than it actually was by that year. If we had grown as fast as Thailand (4.36 percent), we would have had $10,635 by 2009, or 3.7 times what we actually had. Even if we had only grown as fast as India (3.14 percent), our GDP per capita would have been almost twice ($5,477) our actual per capita income in 2009.
That’s what we have lost for coddling these buwaya, and for allowing them to perpetuate themselves in power. That’s why the upcoming elections are so important. Because in the past five years, we have measurably gained in our war against corruption. And we have grown faster than we have ever done. Do we want to continue, or shall we allow ourselves to slip back?
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