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Why Corruption Persists In The Philippines Despite Duterte's Tough Anti-Graft Talk

Ralph Jennings - Forbes 22 august 2017

Graft in the Philippines, a notoriously corrupt country for decades, got a bit of applause when it declined under past president Benigno Aquino. During his 2010-2016 term, citizens were suddenly more likely to carry smartphones, take shots of officials in flashy new cars, for example, and post them to social media. But social media apparently didn’t clean things up because after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in mid-2016 on sweeping pledges to stop crime, the anti-corruption campaign took a new, nastier turn. Duterte said in July corruption remained “deeply embedded” in government.

Corruption reinforces poverty by diverting resources that could help the poor, which nearly roughly one fifth of the 102 million Philippine population qualifies as. The country lost $410.5 billion between 1960 and 2011 on “illicit financial flow,” according to one report. Graft anywhere also deters foreign investors who are wary of bribes or favoritism.

Now high-ranking people, including allies of the president, are suddenly getting fired over alleged graft. In April Duterte dismissed interior secretary Ismael Sueno over suspected corruption, to name a particularly high-profile case. The president had already axed “dozens of bureaucrats” as well as two senior immigration officials and a former campaign spokesman for the same reason, according to news reports such as this one from Manila. Sueno’s dismissal over suspected irregularities in the purchase of fire trucks was described as a warning to other officials who might be tempted.

Graft should again be declining now, especially in the central government, as Duterte casts aside some of the most obvious perpetrators, says Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines.

But some officials remain in positions to steal public resources, Atienza and others believe, making his anti-graft drive uneven and therefore less effective than an all-out rout of suspects.

“When you go to the national government, there are good professional bureaucrats, but at the same time you find corrupt bureaucrats and employees,” Atienza says. “If [Duterte] intends to use the anti-corruption platform, he shouldn’t play favorites. There are still a number of people who have been involved in corruption cases, but he hasn’t removed them. People want him to show equal treatment to all his appointments.”

Duterte’s push to pardon police officers that were alleged to have killed a jailed mayor raised worries among some that not everyone suspected of wrongdoing will be out of a job.

Graft such as bribe-taking still occurs regularly in local government, according to this paper posted by the United Nations. The paper describes a history among local leaders of signing "blank financial statements" and taking roadwork kickbacks of 20% to 40%. The Philippines shows a “natural tendency...of cabinet secretaries to run their departments as independent fiefdoms,” defense research website GlobalSecurity.org says, calling corruption the second biggest barrier to doing business in the country after lack of infrastructure. “Bribes, payoffs, and shakedowns characterized Philippine government and society at all levels," the website describes.

The Philippines ranked the 101st "cleanest" among 176 countries and regions surveyed by Transparency International for its 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. It fell six places from the European NGO’s index from 2015.