A peace-loving people crushed by corruption
It is Australia’s invisible northern neighbour. The Philippines are south-east Asia’s first democracy and only Christian nation. Most of us know at least one of the 230,000 Pinoys who live here in Australia, but that is about it. Virtually none of us learn their national language of Tagalog, trade is negligible and tourism is effectively non-existent.
This week, the Philippines hit our headlines for all the right reasons. After forty years of civil war in the south, uber-popular new President Noynoy Aquino struck a peace deal with Muslim separatist group MILF. The previous day, he had released details of a national audit of his predecessor President Arroyo’s regime, which found $3.2 billion dollars had vanished in potentially corrupt payments. Apparently, 744 officials could face prosecution.
But the veneer of good news is little more than skin deep. Aquino has devoted half his first term to fighting Arroyo appointments like the Chief Justice. Last week he had Arroyo herself re-arrested, a move that was foiled only by her dash to hospital for medical care. It all makes for great TV, but fabulously little impact on the ground in this nation of over a hundred million peace-loving people and seven thousand islands.
Last week, candidacy lists for the 2013 election were submitted to the national election commission. Because political parties are weak to non-existent, incumbents jumped on the “Liberal Party” bandwagon under Aquino’s banner to ensure they retained access to federal funding largess. Such politicians are known as butterflies, seeking out whichever light is brightest at the time. In a nation where opposition is truly the place not to be, using incumbency to align with the President is the latest game in town.
The Philippines are actually cursed by high voter turnout. The 80% presidential election participation rate effectively confers legitimacy on a system which is dominated by powerful families and media personalities. Every Filipino Senator is a millionaire. Term limits are bypassed by shuffling or rotating family members through Congress, the Senate and mayoral positions. For all the frustration that should evoke, every day Filipinos appear mostly indifferent, save for a people’s revolution every couple of decades - which only leads to more of the same.
This is a nation where 70,000 candidates seek election to 17,000 positions running over 60,000 public agencies. Keeping tabs on the mostly centrally-collected tax base as it trickles through millions of hands is an audit challenge of inconceivable complexity.
Nearly 10% of Filipinos work overseas, with their remittances contributing a similar amount to the national GNP. Tax collection is just 13% of GDP, which is half what it should be. Of that amount, authorities estimate that 30% disappears in corruption. A quarter of the population earns less than $1.50 a day and self-rates as perpetually hungry. Workplace productivity has flat-lined for a decade. Walk into many retail stores and you can hardly get to the shelves because there are so many staff on the floor.
Transparency International lists corruption in the Philippines at 134th worldwide. There were only 44 nations ranked lower which were safe enough to measure. For ease of doing business, the nation ranks 148th, making it the home of sovereign risk. In the Philippines, being a corruption whistle blower is a dangerous business; for you and your family. If you don’t pay with your life, then it is your family who can be rubbed out if a wealthy or connected family deems you a threat. Since 1992, 34 journalists have been killed doing their work.
In the overwhelmed judicial system, wealthy families can buy off witnesses, judicial officials and avoid prosecution. The appalling 2009 Maguindanao massacre saw 57 civilians and journalists shot, raped and buried with a back hoe. There have been no convictions. Even the corrupt aren’t safe, if they stumble on someone wealthier; like the customs official who, in a road rage incident, ended up firing on a family member of his own Commissioner. President Aquino has embarked on a massive push to publish all procurement online and issue local municipalities with certificates of “good housekeeping”. His efforts represent brave but long overdue steps in the right direction.
This year, Australia will be Philippines’ largest grant donor. It’s just one example of the enormous effort we make in the region, much of which is unheralded. Australia’s significant education investment in the poorest provinces of the southern Philippines is an extraordinarily targeted approach. This week, Filipino Army Lt. Gen Juancho Sabban said that development programs and education were more effective than armed action in combating extremists like Abu Sayyaf.
For every ten Filipino children, only four finish high school and just two make it into university. In rural areas it is not unusual for one teacher to rotate between two classrooms of sixty children each. Boosting teacher numbers and quality is probably the best entry point for foreign assistance and the most incorruptible path to return the Philippines to a leading role in the ASEAN alliance.
Andrew Laming returned last week from an APEC political leaders’ delegation to the Philippines.
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