It’s Time to Stop Branding Public Works in the Philippines

In a post a few months ago, Matthew noted some challenges involved with education initiatives in the Philippines, where income disparities played a significant role in the success of an anti-vote-buying campaign. In particular, poor Filipinos perceived one campaign as condescending or insulting, and believed that the middle- and upper-class individuals behind those campaigns demonstrated a lack of respect in their approach to voter education. The issue goes much deeper than a single poorly-executed education campaign. Even popular anticorruption movements—such as the one that ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001—were divided along class lines. Poorer Filipinos celebrated (and continue to regard) Estrada as a champion of the poor, while middle- and upper-class Filipinos demanded his resignation following allegations of plunder.

This tension between socioeconomic classes affects countless issues tied to Philippine corruption—from how Filipinos view their politicians, to how they define corruption at all. In his post, Matthew noted one such definitional problem–whether a politician helping constituents to pay for expenses associated with events like funerals or weddings can be classified as “vote buying”–but there are many other similar socioeconomic disparities in the perception of such interactions. It seems that members of different socioeconomic classes expect different things from their local, provincial, and national governments and politicians. To many of those facing extreme poverty, receiving a free birthday cake each year, or having government officials pay for a funeral, are not acts of impropriety, but rather are demonstrations of goodwill and a concern for wellbeing—values which they admire in political candidates.

But the conceptual problem is not simply borne of economic disparity. In many ways, politicians exacerbate these problems by “branding” public acts as their own personal contributions to society, rather than as official acts of their office. A simple drive around any Philippine province demonstrates the extent of this problem. Countless bridges, banners, buses, public housing units, food, disaster relief goods, and even announcements of recent public school graduates prominently feature the names and photographs of politicians. These purposeful efforts to put ones personal stamp on government works are insidious and must be eradicated from Philippine politics.

The efforts of politicians to brand public works projects or more direct benefits has a number of perverse effects:

  • First, branding of public works with the names of elected officials both changes the nature of what it means to be a public servant, and allows those public servants to elicit praise and commendation merely for doing their job. Working in government becomes an opportunity to further personal popularity, and entire cities serve as unofficial campaign materials. In many cases, the politicians who brand bridges and other public works had nothing to do with their construction or development—their only contribution is a fresh coat of paint. This is particularly problematic in a country where name recognition plays such a huge role in politics.
  • Second, personalized gifts like birthday cakes have almost nothing to do with good governance, yet they provide politicians with an opportunity to associate their name—not that of their office—with acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that many voters perceive as a genuine respect for constituents.
  • Third, and relatedly, politicians intentionally blur the line between benefits and vote buying, and win over voters not only because they’ve given them a reward in exchange for support, but also because that reward creates a normative belief that the politicians, who often use public funds in order to provide such “benefits,” become associated with acts of kindness. These hidden motives are more insidious, precisely because many people will choose not to view such acts as bribery. As Matthew pointed out, such confusion around what constitutes vote buying has made certain educational campaigns unsuccessful.

This type of behavior differs from the direct vote buying which occurs during elections. Although the personal branding is similar, the acts I mean to address are those that occur in office—mostly funded by government resources—and not under the guise of campaign efforts. The context is important, because such acts are particularly deceptive when not explicitly done as part of an official election campaign.

The question of how to warn voters of the impropriety of such behavior is more complex than the one presented here. Matthew alluded to several ways in which educational campaigns could approach such a problem in his earlier post. It may also be helpful, however, to target politicians’ behavior specifically—by banning personalized brandings of public works or benefits, and insisting that all projects be marked only with the seal of the official office that created them. At present, online shaming campaigns are informally taking place through social media—suggesting that at least some people have grown tired of these self-serving tactics—and Congress is considering doing away with the practice. Going forward, attacking the behavior of politicians themselves could aid in efforts to do away with improper vote buying.

5 thoughts on “It’s Time to Stop Branding Public Works in the Philippines

  1. Fascinating post, Bea. It brought two distinct questions to mind.

    1) The divide along socio-economic lines in terms of anti-corruption support is really interesting. The previous post you linked to touches about the condescending and insulting assumptions that went into the anti-corruption campaigns, but as you note, it goes much deeper than that. I wonder if part of the divide could stem from perceptions of who government funds belong to/what they are supposed to be spent on? I wonder if the upper- and middle-class buy in for anti-corruption campaigns, and the corresponding lack of support among poorer communities, relates to a perception that the funds which are being plundered would have gone to upper-/middle-class causes (for example, perhaps a disproportionate amount of stolen funds under Estrada were earmarked for secondary and or tertiary education, for urban as opposed to rural development). If that’s the case–and I don’t know that it is–we’d be looking at an underlying factor that could be relevant in a lot of places.

    2) Your main point about politicians branding public works is well taken, particularly in the case where they’ve done nothing but add a coat of paint, but I wonder if there are democratic as well as anti-corruption incentives that cut the other way. If we imagine an ideal politician, one who responsibly carries out public works within her constituency, we’d want her to be re-elected. One of the best ways of informing voters of her acts would be through branding. I wonder if there is a middle ground, a government plaque that went with all public works and which included the name of the politician responsible, as well as information on whether the project was completed on time and on budget?

  2. Bea, this is really fascinating! While I agree that the actions by these politicians are functionally equivalent to vote-buying, I wonder if a policy that eradicates them would actually do more harm than good for the poor. I don’t know enough about social safety nets in the Philippines to know this, but possibly if they can’t look to these politicians for aid for legitimate purposes (perhaps not a birthday cake, but possibly community development initiatives or other such necessities), then there is nowhere else for them to look. If that’s the case, then perhaps creating or improving formal mechanisms for poor communities to receive aid will lessen the ability of politicians to influence them with “gifts”. With regard to your point about the branding of public works, I find myself agreeing with Melanie that while the branding is troubling, perhaps not allowing it at all will remove incentives for politicians to support crucial public works projects. Is this an area where transparency might be a solution? For example, if a politician wants a plaque on public work, then he/she would be required to release information about the project, including bid-selection, payments by the government, timeline, etc throughout the life of a project, not just once its finished. Do you think this will help ensure the public knows more about how long and how much politicians have actually worked on projects, thus incentivizing politicians to become more actively involved in the projects?

  3. Cesi Cruz o f the University of British Columbia, Philip Keefer of the Inter-American Development Bank, and Julien Labonne of Oxford have a new paper in process that is a nice complement to Bea’s post. As Phil explained in a note to me: “We find that when you tell Filipinos about an important municipal spending program prior to the election, it turns out to INCREASE vote-buying. Why? Because the people (who didn’t know about the program before) look around and see that the incumbent hasn’t delivered much from it. The incumbent has to react by . . increasing cash transfers to voters prior to the election. It’s consistent with the idea that these transfers are, indeed, indicative of some type of political accountability to voters, but certainly not efficient!”

  4. I agree with everyone else that this post is great food for thought. At first, your proposal could seem a little radical–something along these lines probably happens in many or most countries–but that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be fixed or addressed everywhere, or at least in the Philippines if it’s having a particularly mendacious effect there.

    Anusha and Mel’s concerns seem valid, but–and you’ll be much better positioned to answer this–more transparency or disclosure doesn’t seem, to me, likely to be an effective alternative. From the reporting you’ve done, it seems there is information or knowledge out there about corruption, and it hasn’t drastically shaped election results; I’d be worried the same would be the case with additional information about the timeliness and cost of projects. Then again, you mention the online shaming campaigns and the Congress’s consideration of making changes–do you think the two are related (i.e., is publicity forcing change)? It just seems like the people who are most likely to be swayed by the branded public work aren’t necessarily going to be the people who participate in or are moved by such campaigns…which makes me a bit worried about anticorruption campaigners working in a bubble. If Congress actually is seriously thinking about changing the law, though (and then follows through), perhaps my skepticism about a bubble isn’t merited–even if there is a bubble, if it forces Congress to make positive changes, then the bubble’s insulation from the rest of society isn’t so important.

  5. Hello, I have the same sentiments like everyone else. They do not have delicadeza to begin with. And they call themselves as public servant? Good thing that there are still true public servants in the country, who make sure that public funds are spent wisely and not taking any credits for the success of the projects.

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