Poverty trumps corruption

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

I have this friend whom I admire and respect whose short tenure in government already has her up in arms at the pain of the poor and the weak, in her mind primarily caused by corruption. Her reaction is not new. In fact, among the sincere who enter public service, they are universally shocked at how corruption chokes both the morality of governance and its efficient delivery of basic services. When those basic services have direct bearing to the most fundamental needs of the poor, the evil of corruption provokes anger and the greatest of frustration.

Since her reaction is par for the course of all other friends who have taken the same pathway of public service, I would have just noted it in my mind and moved on. But in her case, I make this exception of focusing on her statement, “If I ever run for President, I will run on a single platform: anti-corruption.” Understandable, and coming from her, very credible. In her life before public service, she was deeply involved in helping the poor. In my mind, that is more than public service, that is helping the weakest and most needy among the public.

I truly understand her anger at what she says is the pain caused by corruption on especially victims of disasters. I believe she was referring to shelter initiatives taken on by a government in cooperation with the private sector. She must have seen the serious delays and heard the many complaints of those either expecting to be accommodated or already living in the new houses. She must have felt the impact of work that is badly done, hardly done, or done yet continues to leave a bad taste in the mouth because of onerous conditions imposed on their beneficiaries.

I have long been involved with disaster relief and rehabilitation work caused by fires, earthquakes, landslides, floods, and typhoons. I remember being part of efforts to relocate Muslim and Christian fire victims in Iligan City in 2003 or earlier, landslide victims in Pinut-an Island Southern Leyte and fire victims in Baseco in 2004, then several Luzon provinces due to four typhoons that hit them in late 2004. This relief and rehabilitation effort never stopped from then on, like Typhoon Ondoy in Manila, Mindanao with Typhoons Sendong and Pablo, then peaked in the worst of them all – Typhoon Yolanda. We helped with food relief and proceeded to build homes and communities where we were able to raise funds for that costly endeavor.

Did we see corruption at work? Of course. We saw how private traders exploited short food supply by increasing them until the poor simply could not afford to buy any more. We saw government officials connive with private landowners to jack up land prices for relocation sites. Some LGUs demanded that we course all our donations, whether in money and in kind, through them so they could choose their favored constituents over those of their political opponents. Worse, some obviously just wanted to manage the money or the goods but would not set up a transparent accounting procedure.

A few decades of doing service as part of an advocacy has proven to me that the primacy of an anti-corruption focus by the government does not work effectively. My own conclusion is that anti-corruption work is essentially a moral one, then focuses on the legal. The Thou Shalt Not Steal commandment, enhanced by Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods commandment, has taken all of 2,000 plus years and yet corruption defies all moral and legal efforts. My fear, evidenced by the reality of many individuals who tried it, is that the anti-corruption primacy can be so elusive that giving one’s focus on it can maybe send some people to jail but does little to alleviate poverty.

On the other hand, the primacy of an anti-poverty platform demands a very different approach even if anti-corruption efforts continue. It is crucial to remember that corruption thrives where the populace is mostly weak and poor, simply because corruption, first and foremost, is exploitative in nature. The weak and the poor are easy to exploit, while an empowered population, empowered by economic and political freedom, will be much more difficult to manipulate for gain. At the same time, while the anti-corruption march continues, an anti-poverty primacy will put in place programs and policy that can directly enhance productivity and income. Its efficacy will also be easier to measure.

I can still recall how elections and political candidates from the early 50’s would focus on anti-corruption slogans, which mean they knew that voters wanted to hear these promises, as the voters, mostly poor, were also led to believe that corruption was the primary cause of their poverty. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Poverty for Filipinos in the last several hundred years was caused by inheritance, from one generation of poor giving birth to another generation of poor. Nobody examined how this anomalous inheritance began in the first place. Corruption as simply blamed for everything. Convenient but wrong.

If what is truly important to us, beginning with the government, is to dismantle poverty, then we have to dismantle our value system which has made poverty tolerable, enough for society to move from one generation to another without explosive consequences. Politics fight over corruption, but they do not fight over poverty. Why? Because of them, corruption is worse than poverty. Why don’t we reverse the order? Why don’t we make poverty the most important anomaly and its elimination the flagship program from one administration to another? After all, anti-corruption work will not suffer because it will be clear that it perpetuates poverty. But flagship programs that directly target poverty will chip away at a poverty we were all too willing to live with before.

This is not the first time I have made this call through articles I have written through almost two decades. Like a voice in the wilderness.

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