Scale of corruption has become ‘pandemic-like’ during COVID-19 crisis, say experts

Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 10 2020 05:45 AM

Accountability experts say Pinoys must be more vigilant than ever

MANILA — The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should not be reason for the public to get sidetracked in demanding public transparency and accountability from the government, experts said on Wednesday. 

In a virtual forum organized by the Stratbase Albert Del Rosario (ADR) Institute for Strategic and International Studies, legal, economic and human-rights experts said the pandemic should not also hinder the release of public funds to ramp up government’s pandemic response, warning that the circumstance might serve as a breeding ground for “corrosive” corruption. 

The health crisis provides an opportunity for corrupt public officials and institutions to divert public funds for their own personal gains, as transparency and oversight functions “leave much to be desired,” the experts said. 

Transparency International Philippines founder and chairperson Judge Dolly Español emphasized the importance of civil society’s role in fighting corruption in government. 

“Corruption is sin. It is now in pandemic-like magnitude, it is comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic and it is a virus that has magnified the incidence of corruption due to the abundance of social amelioration funds as dole-outs,” Español said. 

She added that the pandemic has “opened opportunities” for corrupt people to be more aggressive, because for them “it may be the last chance to amass wealth,” she added. 

“Aberrations” riddled the distribution of the social amelioration program (SAP) funds to the poorest of the poor, Español alleged, so that many beneficiaries have yet to receive the cash aid.

The judge also lamented how cases against erring officials took too long to be resolved, causing these officials to “continue with their trade” and hold on to power to influence a favorable case outcome.

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Corruption breeds other social ills 

UP College of Law professor and UP Institute of Human Rights director Elizabeth Pangalangan, meanwhile, said the lack of transparency in government response “shields” corrupt public servants from public, media, and even judicial scrutiny, and “promotes inequality and violates human rights standards.” 

“Poor governance such as inefficiency in delivering basic services results in depriving people of their rights. Corruption undermines the government’s ability to deliver health services to the public, and violates the right to health,” Pangalanan explained. 

The lawyer also said that corruption “at the highest level of government” remains an issue of economic and social rights.

Corruption, Pangalanan said, “begets violations of civil and political rights,” and added that during times of crises such as a pandemic, information blackout, misinformation and lack of a free press contribute to “delayed response” in combating the coronavirus.

“During a pandemic, the human right to access to information is crucial,” she said. 

Action for Economic Reforms’ AJ Montesa, meanwhile, believes that strong, credible institutions and “formal rules such as the constitution and laws” is important in addressing corruption. 

But “informal constraints” such as norms, tradition, self-imposed codes of conduct, and other unspoken rules of society, he said, must also be considered. 

“Alltogether, these form what we call the rules of the game, and we are all players in this game . . . You have what is on paper versus what you have in actuality, in real life. And the thing about institutions is they dictate our incentives, they dictate what roles we play in society, they dictate what strategies we play in society,” said Montesa. 

“So the approach we’re taking is not just to look at the individual but rather the institutions and incentives that they are working with.” 

Chinese assistance through Chico River, Kaliwa Dam ‘disadvantageous to gov’t’

Stratbase ADR Institute editorial board member Edwin Santiago, meanwhile, said the Chico River and the Kaliwa Dam, both China’s official development assistance to the Philippines, are “disadvantageous” to the government and the country, as it did not fully comply with transparency requirements. 

The P4.37-billion Chico River Pump Irrigation Project in Pinukpuk, Kalinga is seen to irrigate 8,700 hectares of agricultural land in Tuao and Piat, Cagayan and Pinukpuk, Kalinga, while the Kaliwa Dam project, also known as the New Centennial Water Supply Project, is intended to increase water supply to Metro Manila, Rizal and Quezon, and reduce dependence on the Angat Dam. 

Santiago said both projects received the government's green light despite serious concerns about the environment, the area’s biodiversity, “faulty consultation with the indigenous peoples, failure of the issuance of the free prior and informed consent, and lack of transparency in the selection of contractors.
 
“The selection of the contractor was equally violative of certain rule of law principles: the contractor for the Chico River is the China CAMC Engineering which is also state-owned. There was no transparency in the selection, its (contractor) is involved in an anomalous project, the contractor was previously flagged for being involved in an anomalous project, the government said that ‘we will not engage with contractors with dubious past’ and yet that company was selected for the Chico River,” Santiago said. 

“For the Kaliwa Dam, they tried to remedy some of the transparency issues except that there were audit findings for the Kaliwa Dam — COA (Commission on Audit) said that the selection of the contractor (China Energy Engineering Corp. Ltd.) was equivalent to a negotiated contract from the inception of the bidding process since there were 3 bidders: 2 were disqualified, making China Energy Engineering Corp. the only qualified bidder.” 

He also questioned why the Chinese bagged the projects when they offered “higher interest rates or 2-percent per year for 20 years than other official development assistance such as those with South Korea and Japan. 

The expert also slammed the Philippine government for agreeing to provisions in both contracts that “waive” the country’s sovereign immunity guaranteed under the 1987 Constitution. 

“In layman’s terms, the implication of this is that we cannot claim that we are a sovereign and we cannot say that we are immune from lawsuit, so that also means that in the event that we default and the lender, which is China, decides to take away or control some of our property, by [these provisions] they can do that, similar to the experience of the Chinese ‘debt trap’ in other countries,” he explained. 

The town hall's topic, “Rule of Law in Times of Crisis: Combating Corruption’s Economic Impact and Championing Human Rights in the Face of COVID-19”, was aimed to encourage various sectors of society to watch public spending and allocation of resources related to government’s pandemic response initiatives. 

All speakers urged the public and private sector to “demand” transparency from the government, and report corrupt practices. 

The webinar was in partnership with Democracy Watch Philippines, the UP College of Law Institute for Human Rights, and Transparency International – Philippines, and coincided with the commemoration of International Anti-Corruption Day.