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Anti-corruption under Duterte: Reactive and ineffective

By Joy Aceron Published Jul 23, 2021 5:02 pm

While the Duterte government has promised a strong fight against corruption, its anti-corruption efforts have been reactive, superficial and largely ineffective. 

The Philippines ranked 113th least corrupt nation out of 180 countries in the 2019 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. This is 18 notches down from 2015 before the Duterte presidency. 

The Duterte government does not have a real anti-corruption strategy.

An official of the Office of Ombudsman announced last year that the Philippines continues to lose Php700 billion to corruption every year. That’s around 20% of the total appropriation. 

President Duterte trumpeted anew his administration's anti-corruption drive during his state of the nation address last year.

No real anti-corruption strategy…
The Duterte government does not have a real anti-corruption strategy. All the so-claimed anti-corruption efforts have been reactive to controversies. Duterte removed officials who were allegedly involved in corruption, only to reinstate most of them to other positions. It can be argued that Duterte’s anti-corruption efforts is simply a part of Duterte’s “strong leader” rhetoric, with the actual credentials not matching the rhetoric. 

The attacks on accountability institutions, media and politicians who were calling out irregularities in government are clear contradictions to any anti-corruption promises made by Duterte.

There was no major anti-corruption program launched when Duterte began his administration. There has not been any case of systemic corruption resolved under Duterte. The recently created highly celebrated Task Force Against Corruption has only accomplished “acting on complaints filed to them” with no details on what it means by “acted on” complaints, what were these complaints, how were they verified, and if they have resulted in reduction of corruption, improvement of services or improvement of governance.

…Instead, a systemic weakening of checks and balances
The independence of Congress, the Ombudsman and the judiciary has been compromised by the overstretching of executive powers. 

The attacks on accountability institutions, media and politicians who were calling out irregularities in government are clear contradictions to any anti-corruption promises made by Duterte. The Chief Executive attacked the Commission on Audit (COA) and the Ombudsman when these institutions released reports not favorable to the Duterte administration. All these have contributed to the systemic weakening of checks and balances in the government. 

The admission of COA that it cannot audit the President’s intelligence funds is a serious gap in the Philippine accountability system.

The COA is doing a relatively decent job pointing out irregularities in government spending. However, as always, the question is what happens to the irregularities pointed out in COA reports. 

In addition, the absorptive capacity of COA to do special audits is limited. For example, G-Watch has asked COA to do a special audit on specific allocations in BARMM, National Youth Commission and COVID-19 funds. COA has yet to respond to our requests. The admission of COA that it cannot audit the President’s intelligence funds is a serious gap in the Philippine accountability system. 

Under this administration, there has been a significant rollback in open government reforms. The presidency has been generally exempted from transparency and accountability checks. The regular release of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of government officials has not been observed. Mandatory lifestyle checks have been cancelled. These has been limited-to-no access to information on critical agenda, such as the drug war, China relations, etc. Even the Executive Order on Freedom of Information (eFoI) has been constrained, ultimately unable to prevent corruption.     

Lacking transparency, participation and accountability in COVID response
Procurement-related corruption during COVID-19 crisis is expected to have worsened with the relaxing of controls in the Bayanihan We Heal as One Act 1 and 2. One of the “special powers” granted to the President is exemption from government procurement laws in order to undertake procurements in the most “expeditious manners” (Bayanihan 1 Section 4.6).

State auditors have flagged a number of questionable disbursements under the Special Amelioration Program in different areas in the country 

The Bayanihan laws only provide one accountability measure: reporting to Congress. G-Watch has noted major gaps in the reporting to Congress under Bayanihan. To date, the last report of the Executive on Bayanihan 2 submitted to Congress is dated January 4, 2021. The Executive also did not file any report from July to September 2020. 

G-Watch noted the weak-to-non-existent transparency, participation and accountability (TPA) measures in the government’s COVID-19 response. A G-Watch report showed that the ground validation of the Department of Social Welfare and Development on the Social Amelioration Program was mere rechecking of beneficiary profile rather than a validation whether the right amount of assistance has been received by the right beneficiaries at the right time. G-Watch also reported that hotlines and grievance redress in government COVID assistance have been largely unutilized and unresponsive. 

‘Ecosystemic’ fight against corruption
Corruption is a complex problem requiring complex, long-term and multi-faceted solutions. A working state accountability eco-system is a foundation that has to be there. This needs to be complemented by accountability actions involving civil society, media, communities and citizens.

There are other institutional reforms (such as addressing the overly-powerful presidency and electoral reforms), socio-cultural factors (culture of corruption) and economic factors (poverty making people vulnerable to corruption, concentration of wealth fuelling plunder and impunity) that need to be addressed. Long term consistency and being strategic is crucial for anti-corruption and TPA reforms to make a dent on corruption in the country.