Corruption: Root cause or mere symptom?

12 March 2003

The public puts its trust in government officials to look after the best interests of the public.

A very simple tenet. Yet it is one that seems to elude the fundamental sensibilities of Philippine society. When was the last time you the Filipino reader rested assured that a Philippine government bureaucracy, bureaucrat, or official is doing its, his or her job properly -- i.e. at the core of said job, looking after the best interests of the public that it, he or she presumably serves? When was the last time you were confident, for example, that the nation's future food security was being planned, or that our youth are being educated properly, or that our roads are being built with the right materials, or that your mail was going to get to its destination, or that crime is being solved?

When was the last time you got by a whole day liberated of the feeling that people who despite being of privilege far beyond the rosiest dreams of ordinary Filipinos are still getting more than their fair share of government "service"?

Never mind paranoid conspiracy theories that many Americans dwell on which others might cite as evidence that First World governments are just as untrustworthy. The level of distrust First World people feel towards their government is of a different league.

Ours is pathetically basic: Do you trust your government to provide you your fair share of what basic services are due you?

Trust is progressively eroded in a society afflicted by endemic corruption. When trust among a people is reduced, more control measures are applied. And as more control measures are applied, the more the atmosphere of mistrust thickens. More control measures mean slower processes and more human intervention in these processes breeding more opportunity for corruption. The grotesquely convoluted systems and procedures that paralyse our nation's bureaucratic processes are a legacy of this runaway positive feedback loop -- corruption breeding mistrust, mistrust breeding controls, controls breeding more corruption.

Corruption --> Reduced Trust --> Draconian bureaucratic controls --> More corruption

Simple equation.

Or is it?

Asked what is Philippine society's most challenging malaise, most people will answer without much reflection -- corruption.

What must we do to cure this malaise? People are even quicker with answers:

Prosecute the offenders!
Refuse to give bribes!
More discipline!
Set an example!
Corruption is Public Enemy Number One!

Yeah, right.

There are enough of these half-witted sloganeering campaigns to serve as election campaign fodder for the next 100 years. But take the same line of critical examination of our basic government service entitlements and apply them to these slogans and appreciate the hollowness of their rhetoric:

Do you trust our justice system to prosecute and convict the right offenders?
Do you trust the general public to abstain from bribery?
Do you trust the ordinary Filipino to exercise proper discipline?
Do you really believe our government officials are serious about eradicating corruption?
Do you have confidence that a systemic approach to sustainably reduce the incidence of corruption is being undertaken?

The way we presently approach problem solving, there is no way in the next 100 years that any of the above is going to be answered with a "Yes!". And that's a conservative guess -- we already have a 50-year no-results track record of developing sound governance in our society.

What can we do differently this time?

Our failed efforts to combat corruption are echoed by the hollowness of the above-cited slogans. They have one thing in common: They all address the symptom and not the root cause. Corruption is a mere symptom of an underlying dysfunction -- lack of trust. And as we have shown above, our attempts to stifle the symptom merely nourishes the environment that breeds it. By attempting to stifle corruption with controls, we nurture an environment of mutual distrust. By making self-righteous calls for "discipline" and "restraint", we merely highlight that Filipinos are, in fact, an undisciplined and unrestrained lot and enforce our perception of one another's untrustworthiness.

Many notable intellectuals have cited this gaping hole in our cultural fabric:

According to Teddy Benigno in one of his Star articles cited "A recent survey conducted by Prof. Jose Abueva, formerly UP president, show[ing] that beyond the family, Filipinos hardly trusted anybody."

However according to Francis Fukuyama (refer here for credentials), "One of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation's well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society."

Teddy Benigno then goes on to say that "The most economically advanced, politically sturdy countries are the high-trust ones like Japan, Germany, the US and China. Occupying the cellar are low-trust countries like the Philippines, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, many in Latin America, a multitude in Africa." Benigno also admits that there are signs that this affliction is spreading to advanced countries such as the US: "Lately, in recent decades, and just weeks ago and even today, the scandalous bankruptcy of some of the biggest corporate empires in America like Enron, Wall.Com, Anderson, Xerox, have impaled daggers into America's trust factor. The American model begins to pale and shrink."

Of course the fact that the malady afflicts other countries does not diminish the impact of this critical reality in the Philippines and that it is something that needs to be addressed in absolute terms.

Jaime Licauco in an Inquirer article dated 22 May 2001 went as far as saying that: "A nation whose policies and rules are based on the assumption that everybody is a cheat and liar unless proven otherwise cannot long endure. Take a close look at our bureaucracy and its rules. It is burdened by elaborate and often unnecessary checks and balances so that nothing ever gets done in the process."

The solution is obvious: Our best approach to combating corruption lies in creating an environment where mutual trust can take root. And a good starting point is to create fair, simple, and transparent governance frameworks where accountability rules; not controls.

"In Japan there are very few lawyers and the codes are mostly unwritten, but they are binding, nonetheless."
- Greg Sheridan, Asian Values Western Dreams

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