Eric Gutierrez is a policy analyst at an international NGO  (nongovernment organization) based in London. He has worked for other NGOs in Africa and Asia, including the Institute for Popular Democracy in the Philippines . For comments, please email eric.gutierrez@live.comThis piece was published in the November 21, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.


First of two parts

Isn’t it profoundly disturbing that despite having one of the most extensive anti-corruption systems in the world, the Philippines continues to be crippled by corruption scandals?

Many other countries have specialized agencies that prosecute corruption, just like the Ombudsman. But few have special courts of similar stature as the Sandiganbayan, created to speed up judgment on corruption cases. Even fewer countries perhaps would have something like the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission, to facilitate decisions even more quickly on presidential appointees suspected of graft. These are on top of the standard bodies for checks and balances, like the Commission on Audit or the Blue Ribbon committees of Congress. The idea behind this massive infrastructure is that while murder and other crimes go through the regular courts, corruption gets quick and special treatment. When the Sandiganbayan made its biggest decision by finally convicting Joseph Estrada of plunder in 2007, many anticipated that corruption was on the decline.

The Philippines is not alone in launching sustained and institutionalized campaigns against corruption, only to find the problem even more entrenched despite some strategic victories. Arnoldo Alemon, president of Nicaragua from 1997 to 2002, was convicted of money laundering, embezzlement and corruption in 2003. Thaksin Shinawatra, ex-prime minister ofThailandwas convicted of corruption in 2008 by the Thai Supreme Court. Alberto Fujimori, strongman ofPerufor 10 years (1990 to 2000), was convicted of corruption in July 2009. Later in September 2009, Taiwan convicted and sent to jail Chen Shui-bian, president from 2000 to 2008. Many more ministers and top officials in many other countries, have been brought to court and jailed, including the police chief of South Africa, who was also the head of the United Nations (UN) body Interpol.

These convictions were dramatic legal and political victories. Yet, corruption remains strong in these countries. It has become obvious that prosecution-based strategies alone cannot deal with the problem. Many more Fujimoris, Alemans or Shinawatras will continue to emerge long after they are jailed. Some may even be as “lucky” as Estrada in getting a pardon. So we must ask, why has the reach of corruption been so seriously underestimated? If prosecution-based strategies and formal rules-based institutional reforms are delivering limited results, what else can we try?

Some think tanks around the world have been trying to solve this puzzle. A first answer that has emerged is the need to change current conceptions and understanding of “governance.” Research by two respected groups in the United Kingdom (UK)—the Centre for the Future State and the Institute of Development Studies—suggests the need for an “upside-down view of governance.” The focus, they recommend, should be less on the destination, and more on the means for getting there. That is, rather than trying to build an ideal governance model or prioritizing reform of formal institutions, explore instead how elements of public authority are being created through complex processes of bargaining between state and society actors, and the interaction of formal and informal institutions.

The basic problem is that every time “good governance” is invoked, a certain default model of governance, typically resembling those in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) states, comes into play. Poor governance is then assessed in terms of the gap between the developing country reality and this model. Expecting developing countries to fit this model is patently unrealistic, particularly where the boundaries between “state” and “society” are unclear, or where the rule of law is non-existent or selectively applied. State institutions are not the only sources of public authority. Sometimes, non-state institutions like traditional village elders council can be more powerful in changing public officials’ behavior. Hence, the focus should be on creating effective public authority, formal or informal, that can undertake core governance functions and mobilize for the delivery of collective goods.

Indeed, moving the focus away from prosecution-based strategies is worth a try. The Ombudsman and Sandiganbayan have existed for nearly four decades but have delivered few results. Congressional anti-corruption investigations do not really lead to decisive action. It is unrealistic to expect these institutions to do more. But this should come as no surprise. After all, isn’t it that corruption laws can only be enforced in ways that meet the needs of those in power?

What then constitutes an effective public authority that can compel the corrupt Philippine elite to behave? This is basically a collective action problem. As journalist Malou Mangahas laments, Filipinos already know and talk too much about corruption. Ordinary folk from the housewife to the jeepney driver can provide information on who’s doing what, who is being bribed, who’s turning a blind eye, and so on. The challenge is how to mobilize them to take action. PMA (Philippine Military Academy) alumni know the problem. They know who made money. But how can they turn their ambivalence into a resolute stance— tamaan huwag magalit, even if those to be hit are close friends, superiors, or mistahs? The problem is about taking action in the best way each group, sector or household can. Taking action is about weighing in and influencing the complex processes of interaction between formal and informal institutions, and potentially shifting the incentives and interests of local actors.

It can even be argued that the existence of formal anti-corruption institutions has become the excuse for many sectors in society not to take action. The courts or crusading congressmen will do their job, it is thought, so let us just wait and see. The myth that formal institutions alone can break corruption, or that there can be “one-stop shops” to end corruption, must be broken. The agenda should change from “good governance” to “creating effective public authority.”