Cost of corruption
The failed attempt of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration to prevent Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr., former president of Philippine Forest Corp., from testifying on the $329-million National Broadband Network project has once again focused public attention on the perennial problem of corruption.
Graft and corruption has been a fact of national life since post-Liberation days. Almost every administration has had its big and sensational graft cases. At every presidential election, one major issue that is always raised is graft and corruption. Opposition leaders denounce the graft being committed by the administration, but once they take over the reins of government, they also commit graft. It’s just a case of different sets of people pigging out at the trough that is the national treasury at different times.
Economist Alejandro Lichauco has said the Philippines is perennially in crisis because of “the mortal mix of corruption and poverty and a consequent loss of popular confidence in government and the electoral process as instruments of change.” The fatal mix, he said, is poverty so massive and so intense as to have degenerated into a problem of mass hunger, and corruption that is as massive as the massive poverty. A deadly mix, indeed, that is killing tens of thousands of people.
Starting with the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, the Philippine crisis has been characterized not only by corruption and poverty but also by human rights abuses and a culture of impunity. Bruce Van Voorhis, a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission, said that these aspects of the life of the nation are linked: “People are poor to a large extent because of widespread corruption; those who wield political power violate people’s rights to attain and maintain that power; a lack of judicial punishment in the courts ensures impunity that permits corruption and human rights violations to continue. The cycle has sadly repeated itself for years.”
Corruption retards economic and social development, lowers the quality of public services and infrastructure and raises the prices of goods and services. In all these aspects, it is the poor who suffer the most because they cannot avail themselves, for instance, of the services of private doctors and hospitals or buy expensive goods. In some cases, corruption literally kills: for instance, a ship sinks and hundreds of people die because a coast guard officer was bribed to allow the overloaded, non-seaworthy vessel to leave port.
In 2000, the World Bank estimated that corruption was costing the Philippine government $47 million (about P1.92 billion) a year or a massive $48 billion (P1.968 trillion) over the 20-year period through to 1997. Think how many kilometers of roads and bridges and how many schoolhouses and hospitals that money could have built. Think of the other public infrastructure and public services that could have been improved with that kind of money. But all that public money went into the private pockets of corrupt, greedy government officials.
Graft and corruption flourishes because of the culture of impunity. Have you heard of any big fish being convicted of corruption and plunder, except deposed president Joseph Estrada? Yes, Estrada was convicted of plunder, but he did not spend even a day in a real prison. Only six weeks after his conviction, he was pardoned by President Arroyo. Was that any way to set an example for the other grafters in government and to would-be grafters and plunderers?
And so the graft and corruption continues. But from time to time a ray of light pierces the darkness and gives the nation hope that we might yet be able to start punishing the grafters. Such a ray was Lozada, whose courageous and forthright testimony at the Senate may yet save the nation from the grip of scandalous, graft-ridden deals.
But whistleblowers like Lozada cannot, just by themselves, ensure a successful campaign against corruption. Graft and corruption has become so ingrained in the national life that it is considered “normal.” Even people like Lozada are ready to consider a 20-percent “commission” on government deals acceptable. But that should not be acceptable. A 20-percent “commission” is an illegal and immoral “tax” on a poor and overburdened people. They have to realize this, watch every government transaction that may be tainted with graft, and denounce officials who are stealing taxpayers’ money — their money.