Corruption: Aquino's biggest challenge

By Zen Hernandez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 27 2010 11:42 PM | Updated as of Jun 28 2010 09:41 PM

MANILA, Philippines - "Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap," was President-elect Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III's battle cry during his campaign. His promise was to lead the country to the straight path or what he called "daang matuwid." Now that his inauguration is just a few days away, everybody is curious if he can actually deliver the promised change.

For the 9 years that his soon-to-be predecessor President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was in power, the Philippines managed to score poorly in the Corruption Perception Index, a global survey conducted annually by international civil organization, Transparency International. From 2.9 in 2001, the country's score dropped significantly to 2.4 in 2009, with 1 being the most corrupt.

Former Budget Secretary Ben Diokno said the immediate consequence was a decline in foreign direct investments, with investors preferring other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region such as Vietnam.

Running after robbers

As Mrs. Arroyo steps down on June 30, she also leaves behind her a myriad of monumental corruption issues that until now remains unresolved, among them, the fertilizer fund scam and the overpriced National Broadband Network (NBN)-ZTE Corp. deal which allegedly also involved her husband.

Transparency International co-founder Michael Hershman believes it is important for Aquino to run after and finally jail corrupt officials in order to prove to the world that the Philippines is indeed headed for change. But it is not going to be easy.

However, there are things that Hershman believes Aquino can start with immediately. On top of Hershman's recommendation is for Aquino to set up an independent anti-corruption commission with prosecutory powers to compensate for the failure of the Ombudsman to run after the "big fish." Just recently, the Ombudsman cleared President Arroyo and the First Gentleman from any criminal liabilities on the anomalous NBN-ZTE broadband deal.

It seems though that the incoming administration is right on track since Aquino already announced that he will create a new government office that would focus on corruption issues. The government should work on a better and more effective witness protection program though. Unfortunately, the recent killing of the Maguindanao massacre witness does send a bad signal to would-be witnesses. (Click here for related story.)

Starting from within

Nevertheless, Hershman believes Aquino should start transparency from within his Cabinet. Hershman urged Aquino to rescind an executive order that prevents Cabinet officials from declaring business and financial interests.

Hershman also recommends that the country consider requiring a so-called "integrity pact" in all government transactions and projects. In India, for example, parties involved in government projects are made to sign agreements containing provisions that require them to open books, report individuals who may attempt extortion, and to assign an independent body who will oversee the bidding process.

Education and the media

Unfortunately, corruption in the Philippines is already endemic. Hershman believes the nation should have a shift in values in order to overcome the disease. He recommends starting in schools. Hershman believes ethics and morality should be taught in primary school, which involves just teaching the basics, like the importance of not lying and cheating, and the ill effects of corruption.

Broadcast media may also be utilized to effect a change. Public service announcements on honesty and integrity may be used to educate a whole population faster. This has been proven effective in other developed Asian countries.

Michael Hershman emphasizes, however, that corruption is not a problem in the Philippines alone. It is just that some countries suffer more from it than others. The Philippines loses about 20 percent of its budget to corruption each year. Without it, the country will definitely realize its full potential. But it will require a collective and concerted effort from both the government and the civil society to combat it.