Cells for Suites: Why Corruption in Prison Matters, and What To Do About It

In the latest chapter of Philippine corruption drama, a police raid of a large prison complex revealed the lavish accommodations enjoyed by several drug lords. The luxury cells included jacuzzis, strip bars, and marble-tiled bathrooms. Police also uncovered methamphetamines, inflatable sex dolls, and a small concert stage, complete with strobe lights and a disco ball. The prisoners involved were found with over $40,000 each in their pockets, which they had kept on hand in order to pay off prison officials. It is incredible that such a blatant abuse of the system took place under the watch of government officials. As one anticorruption advocate noted, the scandal highlighted the frustrating truth that, due to widespread corruption in the prison system, even a conviction does not guarantee that justice has been done.

The Philippine example may be extreme, but the issue of prison corruption is an important one, and it receives far less attention from the anticorruption community than it should. To be sure, there have been a few studies about this topic, including the U4 Issue Report on Detention and Corrections, released in January 2015. But the U4 Report, while helpful in some ways, contains only broad, general assessments about the possible causes of corruption among prison officials. Moreover, the report considered the issue of prison corruption in isolation—it focused only on the effects of such corruption on the prison itself, without addressing the effects on the broader fight against corruption in society at large. While prosecutorial efforts and institutional reforms are crucial to anticorruption efforts, it is also extremely important that prison officials act in accordance with the law, and ensure that justice is, in fact, done. Continue reading

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.

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The Philippines Must Break the Power of Political Dynasties

Democratic systems are no strangers to political dynasties. In the United States, some well-known families have been in politics for generations—the Kennedys held an impressive 64-year streak in Congress until 2011 (and staged a comeback only two years later), and earlier this month George P. Bush won the race for Texas Land Commissioner, carrying on the political legacy of his father Jeb Bush, his uncle George W. Bush, and his grandfather George H.W. Bush. Although the idea of political royalty inheriting power seems to cut against equal opportunity, members of such families have been revered throughout history. But political dynasties present a much greater threat to democracy when they control a majority of power in the country. In the Philippines, one study estimated that political dynasties comprised up to 70% of the last Philippine Congress (compared to 6% of the last U.S. Congress). During the last election, one notorious political clan had 80 members running for office. Indeed, Philippine political clans have evolved into the most efficient (and at times, deadly) means of monopolizing power. Various members of the same family often cycle through the same congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral seats in their home province, and it’s not unusual to see an electoral race pitting two members of the same family against each other. In many ways, the dynastic culture of politics has removed meaningful choice from the voters, and exacerbated the pervasiveness of corruption in government.

A possible solution is before the Philippine Congress right now—the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill. This bill would prohibit any spouse or first-degree relation (including parents, siblings, and children) of an incumbent elected official from seeking elected office. Although individuals may run once their relative’s term is up, they may not immediately succeed that relative in the same elected office. (The bill would have a enormous effect on the upcoming 2016 elections—Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has already announced his candidacy, and whose daughter’s term in the Senate runs until 2019, would be precluded from running for President.) At first blush, the bill may seem antidemocratic, as it (temporarily) suspends the rights of many individuals to seek elected office. Still, in the Philippines, where the concentration of political power has bred such a strong culture of corruption, certain rights may need to be sacrificed. It is a drastic problem in need of a drastic solution.

There are several reasons why Congress should pass this bill and limit the influence of political families: Continue reading

Can a Private Right of Action Solve State Capture in the Philippines?: A Skeptical View

Last month, as a part of the LIDS Global initiative (discussed here), a research team at the University of the Philippines (U.P.) put forth an ambitious legal proposal to combat corruption in the Philippines. The centerpiece of the proposal is a private right of action that would allow individual citizens to bring civil claims against public officials for violations of the Philippines’ Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. The proposal is designed to overcome the problem of “state capture”–the shaping of laws, rules, and regulations through illegal and non-transparent payments to public officials. Because state capture is so severe in the Philippines—reaching even high-ranking officials within the country’s own anticorruption agencies—citizens cannot “rely solely on the political will of government officials to prosecute their peers in the government.” The private cause of action is intended to address (or at least circumvent) this problem by enabling private citizens injured by corruption to go directly to court, without having to rely on public enforcers.

While I agree that state capture presents a huge problem for anticorruption efforts, I’m skeptical that the proposed private right of action will be effective–at least in the Philippines. The roots of my skepticism are threefold: Continue reading

Learning from Disaster: Corruption and Environmental Catastrophe

One year ago, Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) struck the Philippines, claiming over 6,000 lives. In the aftermath, numerous reports emerged regarding the failure of the Philippine government to properly manage relief efforts and get foreign aid to victims. This past September, the Philippine Commission on Audit (COA) released its comprehensive–and damning–Report on the Audit of Typhoon Yolanda Relief Operations. According to the report, of the $15 million available in the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) quick response fund, and the $1 million in donations received by the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), not one cent was spent on the basic subsistence needs of typhoon victims, in clear violation of the statutory mandate of Republic Act 10352.

Elizabeth’s recent post highlighted some of the challenges involved in fighting corruption in a conflict zone. While a natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan poses similar issues, the challenges–and the opportunities for effective response–differ in some important respects. On the one hand, in a natural disaster–as in a conflict situation–the chaos and breakdown of oversight, coupled with the dependence of victims on the resources, coordination, and capabilities of those in a position to provide relief creates a power imbalance that increases opportunities for corrupt actors. At the same time, although any individual natural disaster is unpredictable, the fact that such disasters will periodically occur is predictable (at least in certain disaster-prone areas), and this creates opportunities–which perhaps don’t exist to the same degree in the context of armed conflicts–to plan ahead: to take steps that can redress the potential power imbalance before the crisis occurs. Continue reading