News and Features

Whose Corruption? (Part 2 of 2)

This is the continuation of “Whose Corruption?” from last Wednesday.

This same logic has found its way into an economic development model of a far different cut. From this stems attempts to address the plight of the most marginalised, in reality the chief victims of the country’s neoliberal framework, through Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs).

The transfers are conditional precisely because they require parents to send their kids to school, or submit themselves to regular medical check-ups, before being deemed eligible for the programme. This then requires expensive means testing to prove family-beneficiaries “deserve” the dole outs. While attempts to channel the funds through Automated Teller Machines is an apparent bid for transparency, the program is still susceptible to patronage politics,  with access to the transfers dependent on having the best connections to local government officials.

Underpinning all this is the assumption that the poor are irrational – thoroughly incapable of knowing what is best for them.  A low-income mother, for instance, would never send her sick child to hospital unless compelled to, preferably with a thick wad of cash. Without the proper financial incentives, a teenage boy would rather drop out of school than complete his education.

Absent from these narratives  is the reality of declining public health care coverage  and a public education system that is far from completely free, in the context of declining real investment in social services, and the virtual selling off of state assets to the private sector.  Nominal increases in funding for programmes like Philhealth – on top of subtle privatisations of public hospitals like the Philippine Orthopedic Center (POC) – adhere to the same neoliberal paradigm that drives CCTs. Patients are given what essentially amounts to credit, in exchange for medical services that are patchy at best. Access is individualised and restricted to card-carrying members – often only those in secure employment or least likely to need emergency health care.  Funds dry up and hospitals are forced to charge user fees for their services, as they compete against one another with budgets allocated according to their degree of “self-sufficiency”. State funds are then levered in support of a private sector take-over of public hospitals deemed inefficient, in a process dubbed “modernization”. This was the case with the POC, which was bid out to Megawide Construction Corp this year, among the first of more than twenty other government hospitals under Public Private Partnership projects8.

Direct funding for public hospitals in a universal healthcare framework, in contrast, would ensure better coverage for a broader section of the population, and would save more money over the long haul.

Another assumption is that CCTs are a way of boosting ‘human capital’, and can provide a necessary jump-off point to move a family toward ‘self-sufficiency’. Alongside CCTs, the Self-employment Assistance – Kaunlaran (SEA-K) Program and Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan – Comprehensive Integrated Delivery of Social Service (KALAHI-CIDSS), offer a range of community development and microfinance projects along these lines.   In general, the programmes offer low-income families or communities the opportunity to start up their small businesses through small loans – and on a whole look promising, at least on their websites.

But in Brazil, India and Bangladesh, similar projects have been the subject of criticism. Problems range from corruption to lack of training for communities, to indiscriminate targeting of beneficiaries from governments and donors eager to give out loans – and families consequently unable to pay off their debts. Often such projects are offered as a consolation prize, in places where large-scale mines or dams have ruined traditional livelihoods, or as part of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.

In this country, the concrete benefits to communities of KALAHI-CIDSS’s first phase of implementation from 2003-2010 – funded by a $120 million World Bank loan – is still far from clear.

Meanwhile, the same mantras of self-sufficiency and private enterprise are offered up as magic bullets to all social crises, with incremental loans expected to lift millions out of poverty.

Poverty, in other words, is again treated as an individual problem requiring individual solutions. Beneficiaries are reduced to quaint anecdotes of success and “model” families who fit the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s paradigm of economic development.

But the transfers are only barely enough for a family of five to survive on a monthly basis, even on top of a regular income. Thousands of potential beneficiaries have also been left hanging. As early as its first year of implementation, dozens of reports had trickled in of discrepancies in coverage9.

CCTs are funded by a hefty amount of debt and are temporary at best10, with a massive roll back in funding and a rapid decline in beneficiaries over the next few years. The programme appears set to last long enough to make a good showing for the country’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals, before it expires in 2018. No comprehensive studies have to date been written to assess its true impact on poverty in the country.

Under-the-table deals, Pork barrel, CCTs.  All are an extension of political patronage that runs a direct, if convoluted, line from the local barangay to the highest courts. A form of institutionalised patronage.

This too is corruption.

Perpetuating the Myth

Pointing to the occasional scandal as a matter of individual excess, politicians suggest corruption is correctable through the right institutional reforms.  Besides, they note, corruption under Gloria was far worse. Which may be true, but which begs the question: corruption by whose standards?

That some of the richest families and largest corporations today owe much of their wealth to their close ties to Malacanang, since the days of Marcos, is an open secret11.   Largesse from their political connections are passed on under the table to fund virtual monopolies – or, come election season, to grateful underlings who are desperate for cash and kept in poverty for this reason.

Meanwhile, impunity appears to have won the war.   Time and again, senate investigations into under-the-table sweetheart deals involving top government officials and the country’s leading businessmen have come to naught. High-level politicians implicated in some of the most damning corruption scandals in over a decade walk free.

In this context, our Great Leaders have understandably sought to smokescreen the most damning symptoms of a democracy in crisis through a facade of legitimacy.

Here the mainstream media have been complicit. Some of the latest telenovelas are crammed with the lives of the rich and their petty dilemmas: as though their lives of conspicuous consumption were something to aspire toward, not question and despise.

Conversely, the poor are either romanticised or worse, condemned12.  Images of  informal settlers battling the authorities are played out endlessly in the air waves. The urban poor – men, women, children, the elderly – are made to appear as barbaric as possible. A campaign to blame an entire class of people for being the root cause of city flooding, crime and patronage politics is a barely veiled attempt to gain public support for sweeping them away.

Meanwhile, nothing is done to stem the tide of migration by solving rural poverty. Climate change and commercial construction on reclaimed lands still threaten to submerge Manila’s streets. Tens of thousands of families are systematically displaced and relocated to far-flung locales – presumably left to their own devices, or left to rot far from their schools and jobs, with their meagre incomes all but dried up.

Social activists resisting all this are painted in the worst possible light.  Resistance, after all, is futile, and There is No Alternative.

Populist appeals for political legitimacy in million-peso advertisements have instead sought to stifle collective resistance, with attempts by the elite to portray themselves as virtual messiahs, the “good guys” , the man-on-the-street.

Mar Roxas the “farmer” is seen planting rice, bent over, with mud up to his knees and the jarring contrast of flawless white arms.   Bam Aquino the “construction worker” cements hollow blocks together, with rolled up sleeves, a crisp yellow shirt and equally pristine arms, in a Facebook meme that went viral.  Pope Francis dons a plain white robe, rides a public bus and lives in a relatively humbler mansion next to the papal palace.

All beam for the cameras.

What their campaigns reveal – perhaps with the notable exception of the Pope – is a desperate attempt to mask their disconnection from the wider public.  Such strategies, of course, are a global phenomenon and amount to nothing new, harking back to the days when the Caesars sought to defuse mass discontent and delay the inevitable with bread and circuses, at the brink of the Empire’s collapse.

This can only mean we are approaching the end of something. For as we stride the tenuous line between barbarism and civilisation, the joke is on us all. Poverty and affluence are two sides of the same coin.

In the 21st century, obscene levels of wealth are again being justified through empty rhetoric, with politicians spouting slogans from Barack Obama’s Change We Can Believe In to President Aquino’s Tuwid na Daan (the straight path).  They are being justified through myths of the rugged individual, the creative entrepreneur, the rags-to-riches hero who somehow manages to get on top through sheer wit and iron will.

Absent from these narratives is the reality of wealth gained by holding democratic institutions in thrall, through lobbying and questionable deals with the nation’s top politicians, through aggressive marketing to young children, through the exploitation of labour and the abuse of the environment; through crack-downs on unions and from masses of underpaid and chronically insecure workers, who receive virtually no share in corporate profits.

This is something no amount of papal bus-riding can hope to cure.


CJ Chanco is a communications undergraduate student at De La Salle University Manila, a member of the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines, and a former features editor at The LaSallian.

He blogs at