Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold economic suffering, and there is clear public discontent about the government response measures to alleviate the plight of the suffering population.
Alongside the adverse economic and social dislocations, government response measures also carry with them the threat of corruption. In January 2021, Transparency International (TI) warned that “widespread corruption is weakening COVID-19 response, threatening global recovery.” But as early as 2020, TI, in its paper titled “Getting Ahead of the Curve: Exploring post-COVID-19 trends and their impact on anti-corruption, governance, and development,” had sounded the alarm about the possible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on civil and political rights, checks and balances, state capacity, the economy, poverty and inequality, social cohesion and interpersonal trust, the information landscape, big-tech companies, and other non-state actors, and illicit financial flows.
Government officials, citizens, and sectors need to practice even more vigilance now to guard against corruption gnawing its way into government response measures and making things much worse.
The Philippine government devoted an unprecedented amount of public money to the implementation of health measures in response to the pandemic. On top of the P564.66 billion that had been released as of Feb. 10, 2021, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) also released to the Bureau of Treasury P22.9 billion in financial assistance to LGUs in the National Capital Region, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal. According to the DBM, “The financial assistance is intended to assist 80 percent of the population of NCR Plus who belong to low-income households. They are entitled to receive P1,000 per person but not to exceed P4,000 per family either in cash or in-kind based on the most efficient and effective mechanism to be identified by their respective LGUs. Around 22.915 million individuals are expected to benefit from this financial assistance based on projections from the National Economic and Development Authority.”
Such huge public funds dispensed, and the many reports of anomalies and irregularities that have ensued in their disbursement to the target populace, have led to public clamor for a look into the utilization of the funds. Some members of Congress have responded to this by filing House Resolution No. 1731, “urging the House of Representatives to exercise its Oversight Powers to look into the implementation and utilization of appropriated funds under Republic Act No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and RA 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act and to aid the National Government in the creation and implementation of future stimulus and programs.”
Nongovernment and civil society actors are also in the thick of the anti-corruption battle. Conchita Carpio Morales, former ombudsman and 1Sambayan convenor, presented in the first virtual town hall discussion of the group the situation of a country swimming in public debt. Morales discussed the economic stimulus launched in response to the pandemic as an opportune moment to evaluate public spending, because while the “COVID-19 pandemic exposed the existing weakness in our system, i.e., accountability gaps and procurement vulnerabilities or inefficiencies, the new normal exacerbated the weaknesses.” To make the government’s response more effective, she emphasized that “targeting is essential” in terms of implementing the social amelioration program (SAP), and warned that “SAP mechanisms invite patronage politics, absorptive capacity problems, and corruption.”
As for the private sector, its expanding initiatives that embrace ESG (economic, social, and governance) principles have now become models of good governance and corporate social values.
The anti-corruption agenda is evolving into an all-sectoral movement pursued by government officials, civil society, and the private sector alike—as it should be. We all have a role to play in this surging spirit of responsible citizenship.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.