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 Hidden Dangers of Anticorruption Education Initiatives

A little while ago, in a post reflecting on the role of academics in the anticorruption movement, I noted the distinction between anticorruption classes that focus on “teaching of skills” (helping students become effective lawyers, policy analysts, critical thinkers, etc.) and “teaching of values” (using education to inculcate anticorruption norms and reduce cultural tolerance for corrupt activities). In this post I want to pick up on that latter theme, which has become increasingly important to anticorruption activists and policymakers. Fighting the “culture of corruption,” many have persuasively argued, requires not just changing incentives and formal institutions, but also changing norms and values. And one way to change values may be through education–not only formal classroom education at all levels, but other forms of educational campaigns. For example, many attribute the success of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption not only to its law enforcement efforts, but to its broad-based educational campaigns to change the attitude of the Hong Kong population. Many countries have tried to emulate some version of this broad-based “anticorruption advertisement” campaign, and there are at least anecdotal examples of such programs making a difference (though not, to my knowledge, and rigorous assessment through something like a randomized controlled trial).

But these sorts of education efforts, if not carefully designed, can prove not only ineffective, but counterproductive. I recently came across a very nice analysis by the political scientist Frederic Charles Schaffer making this point, drawing on a detailed case study of anti-vote-buying campaigns in the Philippines, and to a lesser extent in Thailand. (I haven’t yet had a chance to read Professor Schaffer’s 2008 book, The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform, but I gather it goes into much more depth and discusses a range of other issues and countries as well.)  The paper is from 2005, so it’s possible some of the specific examples and criticisms might no longer be apt, but my sense is that the larger points are still highly relevant, and quite important to anticorruption reformers who want to use mass education/advertisement campaigns to change citizen attitudes and behaviors toward corrupt practices. I won’t try to summarize all of Professor Schaffer’s nuanced account, but here’s what I take to be the essential argument: Continue reading