News and Events

On the corruption problem

Posted: 2011-05-12
Category: In the News

By: Rene B. Azurin
May 12, 2011


Political science professor Michael Johnston writes, "If people do not trust each other, their leaders, or their institutions, they are unlikely to act against corruption through rhe political system." That, in a sentence, describes the Philippine problem in so far as fighting corruption is concerned. The highly questionable decision of our Sandiganbayan (anti-graft court) in the Carlos Garcia plunder case is merely the lates in a continuing string of events (spanning decades) that make us Filipinos view our leaders and our institutions with deep abiding distrust.

Prof. Johnston, of Colgate University in New York, has made the study of corruption and reform issues in various countries his field of specialization. Brought to the Philippines in July 2009 and February 2010 by the Asian Institute of Management's Center for Corporate Governance, he has produced a small book containing his analyses and prescriptions for anti-corruption reform in this country. The book was sent to me last weekend by Dr. Angela Garcia, executive director of the AIM Ppolicy Center.

The book, Political and Social Foundations for Reform: Anti-Corruption Strategies for the Philippines (2010), tells Filipino nothing they don'talready intimately know, but it is nonetheless useful for fanning debate on whether the so-called anti-corruption program - such as it is (I am not aware that a deliberately thought-out one actually exists) - of the current government has any chance of even small victories.

The question Johnston poses is, "What makes corruption in the Philippines so resistant to the numerous reform efforts that have been underway for years?" The answer he gives echoes what studious Filipinos have been saying since at the least the restive 1960s. He writes, "The Philippine case falls squarely within what I have learned the 'Oligarchs and Clans' syndrome of corruption... Essentially, it refers to a situation in which significant and growing political and economic opportunities abound in a setting of weak institutions. Corruption, under those circumstances, tends to be dominated by the dealings of a relatively small number of powerful figures and their personal followings. Oligarchs and Clans foster particularly worrisome forms of corruption and their deep roots in Philippine geography, history and society create strong constituencies with a stake in the status quo." He adds, "Oligarch-and-Clan corruption, as seen in a variety of societies ranging from Russia and Mexico to Nigeria and Venezuela as well as the Philippines, is contentious, disorderly (often in a zero-sum pattern), and can be linked to a climate of pervasive insecurity as well as to violence." He pounts out, "Often public agencies and policies - including law enforcement and reforms - are 'owned' by one elite faction or another, or are perceived in such terms, anti-corruption efforts may well have little credibility as a result," indeed.

Johnston correctly perceives the underlying problem. He notes, "But while an analyst might see it as being in people's interests to actively resist corruption, that does not mean they will do so. Some of the reasons for that are situational: the risks people perveive in such endeavors, the efficacy they do or do not attach to their own political activities and choices, and the trust they do or do not place in specific leaders, will all influence their willingness to demand and reward better government. But there are generic difficulties in mobilizing the public behind reform as well, two of which are particularly critical: building social trust, and overcoming collective action problems [empahis his]."

What Johnston refers to as "collective action problems" are more familiarly known as "the free rider problem" in a group made up of members with a common interest, some members (if the group is large enough) will try to wiggle out of sharing in the cost of achieving the goal (i.e., they "free ride") if they believe that their individual contribution will not materially affect the effort toward realization of that goal and they see that they will share in the overall benefits anyway once the goal is achieved. (In articles I have written on climate change negotiations, I have often cited the free rider problem as a fundamental obstacle.) In fact, economist Mancur Olson argues in his classic The Logic of Collective Action (1965), "...unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, national, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests [empahisi his]."

Relating and applying that logic to anti-corruption efforts, Johnsonton observes, "The major benefits of corruption are generally tangible, immediate, and concentrated in relatively few bands, creating strong incentives for those involved to protect their advantages and resist controls. The cost of corruption, by contrast are generally widely shares, and are often long-term and intangible. While those costs are no less serious for all that - corruption, in the long run, helps keep poor people poor and democratic processes enieffective in a variety of societies - the incentives and opportunities for any one person to fight corruption on any one day are usually small. When we add to those factors the clandestine nature of many corrupt processes - frequently, all who know of a corrupt act is no immediate victim (as there is when, say, a car has been stolen) - it seems all the more remarkable that corruption has ever been reduced anywhere."

More excplicit;y, Johnston points out that "...corruption control is hard work and can be risky. It may involve foregoing corrupt benefits to which citizens have become accustomed - even if they are petty and are given for reasons of control rather than of real assistance, they may be of immediate value - for the sake of long-term, widely shared improvements... (Moreover) where poverty is intense, individual involvement is unlikely - indeed, from a certain viewpoint is irrational - unless people trust others not to cheat. An individual might well ask why he or she should do the heavy lifting, and give up any current benefits on offer from local patrons, if it seems unlikely that the neighbors (whatever they may say publicly) will join in."

According to Johnston, "So long as we persist in justifying reform in terms of civic virtue and public goods, most citizens will let others fo the heavy lifting and trust will remain weak. A necessary, if not sufficient, step in attacking those problems is to demonstrate that reform is actually happening, and that people have an immediate stake in its continued success." Well, the latest Sandiganbayan decision certainly does not provide such a demonstration.

All anti-corruption efforts by all previous governments in this country have failed miserably in this critical demonstration aspect. There is no indication, at least thus far, that the current government is going to be an exception.



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