Corruption Thrives In Poverty

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

The nature of change, once the tempo picks up, is that one drama follows another until several can be happening at the same time. It was not happening that fast in 2009 when a few personalities were making their plans to run for president the year after. One senator was clearly ahead of the game, and he was ready to spend amounts that any of his rivals could not.

But August 1, 2009, changed everything. Corazon Aquino who had been battling cancer finally lost the fight but triggered a much bigger one, affecting not one human life but the life of a nation. From her death, the Tita Cory of the Philippines opened an unexpected door for her son, the door to the presidency in 2010.

Without the ambition, without a campaign, Noynoy Aquino was catapulted to being the leading presidential candidate. He was clearly a people’s choice, almost a surreal one, as he rode, on the surface, the popularity of his mother and the sympathy of Filipinos upon her passing. But what was clear, too, was that the people chose him because they regarded him as their hope for change, radical change.

But the change before us is bigger than a president. It is a change so long desired and can be so gut-wrenching that even a president is disturbed. He should be. All of us should be. We asked for this, and P-Noy promised he would lead the charge. He wanted a Truth Commission because he wanted to challenge corruption, because he wanted to examine the presidency of Gloria Arroyo as a prime example of that corruption. Corona’s Supreme Court denied P-Noy his Truth Commission but provoked him to then run after Corona himself as the symbol of injustice out to protect a corrupt Arroyo presidency.

Because the cause of change found a people more determined than ever to achieve reform, and a leader more ready than others to allow it, change is digging deep into the evil that has penetrated our national soul, our moral compass. Change now challenges us at every turn, in every issue that has festered and polluted our national character. It may have started with challenging Gloria and her Rene Corona but certainly will not stop there. We are now confronting the most visible face of the pork barrel system – the PDAF of legislators. It will not stop there, however, as the pork barrel itself is being defied.

Many may not realize that the pork barrel is not a new practice, not even a creation of Philippine politics and governance. It has been referred to as the bane of patronage politics, and that has basis in fact. But the unintended beneficiary in the confrontation between the pork barrel system and agitated citizens is the poor Filipino. It is because of massive poverty that the pork barrel system had been justified – even tolerated despite its flawed implementation. Because the poor kept asking for so much, the politicians justified giving them what the system could produce from the budget.

Many forget that the same pork barrel system was practiced in American politics and governance. Where else would our politicians learn about it, enough to begin the practice as soon as independence was granted to the Philippines in 1946? But while America discontinued the practice and instituted instead a legal lobby system where special interests could court legislative favor openly, and contribute to candidates just as openly, Filipino politicians found continuing the pork barrel system more advantageous.

The abuse of the pork barrel is directly proportional to the acceptance of corruption as a way of life in Philippine politics by politicians, bureaucrats and citizens themselves. The issue of corruption in government has been around since independence from America, but it found great champions in Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada who, as of 2007, had made it to the top ten of the world’s most corrupt, according to Transparency International. The nine years of Gloria Arroyo puts her in a good position to overtake 10th placer Estrada and may even challenge Marcos in 2nd place.

It is not any wonder that corruption remains today even if P-Noy is determined to pursue his anti-corruption campaign. What would be surprising is if corruption simply runs away when not enough reform has been instituted and not enough public outrage has been displayed. Corruption is not just a government practice, it is a character flaw of those in government who cannot resist their greed. It is also a character flaw of a citizenry that has moaned and grumbled about corruption but had learned to tolerate it for decades. All of us, then, are paying the price today.

But where we are now is already a miracle in itself. It is people power refusing to give up despite the frustrations along the way, it is decency that has found its voice despite the seeming impossibility of ordinary citizens overturning the power of greed in governance. Most of all, many are now following what the politicians originally did – pointing to the poor as a justification for dismantling the PDAF and the pork barrel system itself. If fellow Filipinos and politicians can both claim that the poor among us, and they are in the tens of millions, deserve government resources to ease their plight or lift them out of poverty, that would be the real miracle.

Corruption has no greater partner in crime than poverty. The more massive the poverty, the more corruption will find nourishment and encouragement. So many laws have been passed to prevent and punish corruption. So much media attention has been devoted to criticize corruption. Now, we even have protest marches against it. Why not instead dry the pond where the fish of corruption thrives? Why not devote hundreds of billion directly to help dismantle poverty and as many of us, politicians, bureaucrats and citizens co-manage the effort to return dignity and opportunity to the poorest among us?

Only in solidarity of spirit and purpose can a people reform itself without bloodshed. Only in courage and wisdom can we rise as one people to claim our nobility.

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