Corruption, climate, and Congress: Preying on Philippine resilience and faith
We are used to more than twenty of the world's worst storms coming through every year. Floods devastate whole cities and communities everywhere. And every year, we do our best to rebuild, to understand sorrow, to find a way to make peace with loss, to find reasons to survive and to thrive, and to always look to "what's next" in terms of what we can do for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations, community reconstruction efforts that take years.
Anyone who's ever seen the unrelenting tenacity, hard work, adaptability, resourcefulness, optimism and faith of millions of Philippine nationals working abroad should realize that all of THAT comes from somewhere.
As with any other of my countrymen and countrywomen, I have also lost, also grieved, also made peace, also had to rebuild. It's an art form we learn from birth.
Today's rampage by the "world's most powerful typhoon", Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines) is only beginning to be felt, and initial reports on the ground indicate that the deaths, damage, and devastation in the Visayan provinces of Cebu, Leyte, Samar, Bohol will be another one for the books.
As I write this, the rest of the country has been riveted for months – and most lately this week - following the Senate hearings on the massive cabal of corruption involving the misuse and misallocation of taxpayers' funds, through the middleman operations of Janet L. Napoles and her dummy corporations and non-governmental organizations, by Legislative representatives receiving the PDAF (Presidential Development Assistance Fund), formerly known as the CDF (Countrywide Development Fund). Petitions challenging the constitutionality of these Executive disbursements to Congress are pending before the Philippine Supreme Court. Reading the Commission on Audit reports, news reports and testimonies of ostentatious lifestyles led by Napoles and her ilk, and the narratives stated in the petitions filed before the Supreme Court, it is chilling to see how billions of taxpayers' funds have been systematically siphoned off for years to dubious NGOs.
It appears to be a continuum of corruption – from Marcos-era plunder and the Presidential favoritism towards cronies' dummy corporations, to the pending charges against the former President Macapagal-Arroyo for plunder and widespread corruption, and apparently, to the status quo where corruption is institutionalized, where corruption is our normal.
We know tracing the paper trail and recovering public funds already lost to this cabal will take generations. It has been around forty years since Martial Law and to date the Philippine Government has not had a successful record recovering plundered public funds that plunged the Philippines from Asia's No. 2 economy (second only to Japan) in the late 1960s/early 1970s, to its present middle-income state. This year, the Philippines posted the highest economic growth rate in Asia (even outperforming China), with stellar performances by the stock exchanges, becoming a creditor (rather than a debtor) to the International Monetary Fund, posting record investment levels, and other favorable indicators that might point to a steady recovery and climb back to the economic prestige the country occupied forty years ago.
What disturbs, discourages, disenchants, and solidifies massive dissent from the alleged decades of Congressional misuse of public funds, for a country such as the Philippines, are all the opportunity costs completely lost to this corruption.
Our lost public funds could have paid for the best technologies for early warning systems against storms, for building better seawalls, for constructing the best protective system against the expected arrival of over twenty of the world's worst typhoons, hurricanes, and storms every year, and for providing the best system for humanitarian assistance, immediate and targeted disaster relief operations, countless evacuation centers.
Our lost public funds could have been spent towards our regular reconstruction efforts, for rebuilding our schools, our communities. While natural disasters are not directly preventable (climate change has its own stamp on the frequency of these disasters), their consequences can be remediated, mitigated, and allayed. The technology exists at a price - Honolulu, Venice, the Netherlands are but three places around the world where anti-flooding systems, early warning mechanisms, and other disaster coping mechanisms are well in place - but corruption has made accessing those technologies lost opportunity costs.
Our lost public funds could have gone towards creating durable employment opportunities for Philippine workers and professionals - so that we wouldn't have to be part of this diaspora serving the rest of the world when we could be serving at home.
Our lost public funds could have gone towards improving our public health and educational systems across the board for all cities and communities in the archipelago - so that the real consequences of the gross economic inequalities between the powerful North including the resource-rich capital Metro Manila and the rest of the country, would not entrench the historical grievances of the Southern provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao.
There are ten thousand uses for our lost public funds. But while the Senate may continue its hearings, cases are filed, and the cogs of media turn their wheels towards each scandalous revelation after another, we all know we're not getting our lost public funds back. Not in this generation. Probably not in our children's children's generation either.
In the meantime, Filipinos and Filipinas born, bred, and raised will continue to live out our cycles of loss, adversity, and rebuilding. All at the price of our country's best, ablest, and most hardworking leaving our families to find ways and means to help our communities rebuild. Everyone will again note our typical "Philippine resilience and faith" in how we deal with this every year.
What galls the rest of us from this seeming Congressional cabal of corruption orchestrated by specific elites is how particularly predatory this is on the tremendous, but ultimately limited, reserves of Filipinos' and Filipinas' resilience and faith.
We "know" these disasters will come every year, we "know" what it would cost to have the best technologies already available in the world to mitigate the disasters and ensure swift reconstruction and remediation, but we DON'T take these steps because we can't afford them, we don't prioritize them, and we look to these acts of nature as force majeure beyond the realm of human ingenuity or intervention. Every political platform makes the grandiose promises to the electorate of ridding corruption - pointing to Marcos and his cronies as if they had the monopoly of this privateering enterprise - but not a single administration has ever committed to making an integrated natural disaster prevention, remediation, and reconstruction system our country's highest national security priority.
Mr. President, members of the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives, there is a limit to our prayers, our endurance, our strength. You have little over three years remaining to solve the most pernicious evil to face your constituents and citizens by removing and reforming the institutional structures and lack of oversight that makes corruption possible, but you should acknowledge that, as hard as you concentrate governmental resources towards police efforts, you will not be able to find every corrupt actor and send them to prisons - the wheels of the legal and justice system turn far longer when we don't have the public funds to equip our courts, our law enforcement agencies, our schools and private citizens' community watchdog efforts. You will also not be able to recover the full measure of our lost public funds.
Thus, while we seek to make accountability the defining pinnacle of our post-colonial and post-dictatorship Constitutional system, and while targeting corruption through the Senate blue ribbon committee, House, Ombudsman, Department of Justice investigations will certainly unravel the narrative of systemic and widespread corruption, the Executive Branch still has to govern.
You have around three years left (realistically two years) before the next cycle of political campaigning and electoral lobbying starts. You CAN leave a concrete legacy by taking the bold and constructive steps to develop an integrated national natural disaster prevention, remediation, relief, and reconstruction program now.
Corruption, much like these natural disasters, may be inevitable - but they are not beyond human intervention, ingenuity, and resolve. While it may take generations and several lifetimes over to deal with both, Philippine resilience and faith doesn't mean that we have to stand by silently and take all of this as an inevitable expectation of futility - NOT when we elect, empower, and enfranchise our governors with the highest mandate to lead and to act for the Filipino people everywhere, at home and abroad.
We can have resilience, we can keep the faith, but we need you to act and be accountable.
Prof. Dr. Desierto (JSD, Yale) is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Hawai’i and Manoa's (Honolulu, USA) William S. Richardson School of Law