Light and dark

This week, we commemorate the declaration of Philippine independence from Spain.  The Philippine Statistical Authority reported that net foreign direct investments (FDI) in March 2015 fell to its lowest level in over a year, showing a 54% decrease from the same period last year. First quarter 2015 FDI was less than 50% of Q1 2014 FDI. The Philippine House of Representatives ended its second regular session without having passed the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a bill certified as urgent by Malacañang.

Also this week, the Asian Institute of Management RIzalino S. Navarro Policy Center in cooperation with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung hosted a conference entitled “Institutionalizing Anti-Corruption and Good Governance: International Experience and Evidence”. Ironically, the other bill languishing in the House is the Freedom of Information bill.


In schools of government and in policy courses, students are taught about the cycle of reform. Essentially, what this means is that policymakers are constantly tweaking public policy in order to take account of changes. The cycle of reform begins with a problem definition, essentially the evidence that leads policy makers to believe that a reform might be appropriate. The reform then goes on to the four other stages: diagnosis and policy development, policy decision, implementation, and evaluation. The evaluation process is really a monitoring of the post-reform state. This monitoring is what could then lead to problem detection that would lead to the next cycle of reform.  On the surface, this is all very logical and reasonable and, in fact, much of this process is very rational. 

In the area of health, which is the policy sector I am most involved in, the arrival at a decision is fraught with difficulty. Of course, all policy decisions are difficult simply because they must take into account multiple points of views, multiple stakeholders and multiple goals. Health, though, can be particularly difficult because the outcome objectives are extremely difficult to quantify in a manner that lends itself easily to quantitative analysis. More to the point, when decisions about budgets are made, it is extremely difficult to put peso values on health indicators.

When we teach policy, one of the things we encourage students to do is to understand and engage stakeholders. The reality is that the real test of public policy lies in implementation, and successful implementation is reliant on the support and cooperation of key stakeholders. In fact, in many cases, policy cannot even be adopted if it does not have the support of key stakeholders. For example, in health, the policy makers and regulators are only one category of stakeholders. The other stakeholders include patients, doctors, hospital owners and administrators, other health care workers, local government officials who run hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, health insurance organizations and even employers who end up shouldering a significant portion of the cost of health care.

However, the challenge of managing multiple stakeholders is not the most difficult aspect of successful reform. In the book “Getting Health Reform Right”, Roberts et al explain that the true challenge of successful reform lies in the parallel management of ethics and politics.


In fact, to understand public policy, the place to begin is the beginning. What is the purpose of government? Historically, the purpose of every government is founded on two things: the security of citizens and the provision of order.

In the old days, security essentially meant protecting citizens and their property from invading forces. Over time, the concept of security has expanded to such things as the protection of the right to education and health. As nations grew and commerce expanded, the concept of security and, indeed, the concept of order has become complicated. Governments have always needed to protect citizens from each other as a part of maintain order. In the modern era, this government job includes such things as protecting minority shareholders from majority shareholders, or owners from managers.

In order to accomplish its job, governments levy taxes. In the days of royalty, when rulers overstepped their bounds by collecting oppressive taxes to fuel lavish lifestyles, citizens looked to other royals for protection. Eventually, most royal houses were overthrown and the idea of a single, virtually omnipotent ruler whose very word was law became anathema. Today, part of the job of every government is to protect citizens from those in public office who would seek to create personal gain from the use of public power.

This, in fact, is the World Bank’s official definition of corruption: the “abuse of public office for private gain.” In the AIM anti-corruption conference, Dr. Norman Abjorensen, author of the recently published book: “Combating Corruption: Implications of the G20 Action Plan for the Asia-Pacific Region” begged to disagree. In his presentation, Abjorensen noted that the World Bank’s estimates that public corruption costs developing countries USD 20 to 40 billion a year.  However, he points out that this represents only 3% of the total cost of corruption. He quotes a Global Financial Integrity report that estimates that multinationals cost developing countries a whopping USD 900 billion a year in the form of tax evasion and illicit practices.

When we think about how much might potentially be leaking from public coffers from domestic businesses and even private citizens who do not pay their taxes properly, then we can begin to see how large the problem of corruption really is.

The reality, of course, is that corruption is multi-faceted and combating it will require a similarly multi-faceted approach. However, we must begin with a few basics. For the moment, let us concentrate on two things. First, corruption thrives when it is seen as inevitable. Everyone pays a bribe to get their permits out, therefor it is ok to pay a bribe. When certain practices are widely tolerated, then they are socially legitimized. That is a first step towards combating corruption. We must admit that corruption exists and that we are all responsible for combating it in all its forms. Second, once it becomes clear that corruption is unacceptable, we need to understand that corruption thrives in the dark.


In the AIM conference, Andre Schmidt explained that detection of corruption is a critical component in fighting corruption. He explained that freedom of the press is a critical component in fighting corruption. Peter Perfecto of the Makati Business Club had actually gone a step further and dwelt almost exclusively on the matter of transparency.

Perfecto pointed out that some version of the Freedom of Information Bill has been pending in the Philippine House of Representatives for three decades. Perfecto explained that the nearest the bill came to passing was the 14th congress from 2007-2010 when a lack of quorum prevented lawmakers from ratifying the bicameral report on the very last session of Congress. Since then, the FOI bill has remained stuck in plenary debates in the House. By contrast, Perfecto points out, Senate has consistently managed to approve their version of the FOI bill on the third reading. Perfecto further pointed out that, in the Asia Pacific, the Philippines is one of only five (of 21) APEC member economies without an FOI act. Ironically, the Philippines was one of the eight founding members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative aimed at securing government commitment to transparency, citizen empowerment, fighting corruption, and harnessing technologies for good governance. Today, four years after the founding of the OGP, the Philippines is the only founder without an FOI bill.

There is a single reality that we must all acknowledge. Corruption thrives in dark corridors and shadowed corners. Secrets are the currency of the corrupt.

In the last three decades that the FOI bill has languished in the House, we have had two Aquino presidents. More than any other president, this current one is the one that should understand how secrecy can hide a multitude of sins. More than any other president, this, the son of a fallen journalist, should understand the power of transparency and the evils of secrecy. This is the president who ran on a platform of the straight path, the “matuwid na daan.” This is also the president who, for the first five years of his incumbency, has failed to prioritize the FOI bill. Will this last year be different? We hope so. We hope that his legacy will not be “Matuiwd na Daan, Madilim na Paraan.”

Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at

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