20 September 2011

Social accountability, antidote to corruption

By Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña 

With this column, I resume the series on social accountability which I began last month. So far as I have written three columns on the subject: introducing this new governance tool, discussing how it could be mainstreamed, and defining it. In this column, I will examine the utility of social accountability as a solution to corruption, a timely topic given the recent re-arrest of ex-General Carlos Garcia to serve his court-martial sentence.

When we speak of anti-corruption, the popular images which appear to the layman’s mind are that of the “crusading, crime-busting official” (usually the Ombudsman, especially now with former Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales in the office) or the “lone voice in the wilderness”, often personified by the whistleblower (such as Clarrisa Ocampo, Jun Lozada) or a conscientious, compassionate public servant (like Heidi Mendoza) against an insensitive and corrupt bureaucracy. Yet the battle for efficient, effective, and responsive governance is one that is not successfully fought alone.

As the old adage goes, “it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” More accurately, it is a relay race: more than one participant contribute to sustaining the effort towards the finish line. In fact, it is sad to reiterate that one reason why anti-corruption has yielded sluggish results in the Philippines is that we, as citizens, demand clean government yet fail to supply resources to make such government successful and sustainable.

Bridging that implementation gap is where social accountability from the bottom, or from non-government sources, complements anti-corruption from the top or as executed by the elected and appointed government machinery (national and local levels alike). From one perspective, it goes back to the notion of “supply and demand” for anti-corruption or good governance as discussed in earlier columns. Compromised by corruption in the ranks and often short on material and personnel resources, developing country governments find themselves unable to fully implement good governance policies, whether it is about monitoring, enforcement, or delivery of public goods and services, despite a big demand for them. To extend the economic analogy further, inadequate supply usually spurs entrepreneurs and new players to enter the good governance market.

This is the experience of Teten Masduki of Transparency International-Indonesia and currently an Executive Committee member of the Affiliated Network for Social accountability—East Asia Pacific (ANSA-EAP). As a student during General Suharto’s regime in Indonesia, Masduki helped organize labor and teachers’ unions to promote and protect their welfare, especially in an age of authoritarian rule. Later on, he would help organize coalitions among like-minded parties, eventually helping found Indonesia Corruption Watch following Suharto’s departure from power, and laying down the foundations of citizen participation in anti-corruption.

The experience of Indonesia, which by all accounts has now surpassed the Philippines in its anti-corruption successes, is that where government is unable or unwilling to provide the resources for good governance, the people themselves can rise to the occasion and help bridge the integrity deficit. Social accountability, expressed in organized programs and mechanisms, provide the necessary channels for citizens to provide constructive resources to government anti-corruption efforts, especially information, and sometimes manpower. At the same time, as pointed out before in this column series, it builds good citizenship habits among participants, such than instead of only demanding good governance, citizens step forward with solutions (or at least part of the solution) in their hands.

Yet another of Masduki’s observation, and the other perspective of social accountability complementing anticorruption, is that the war for good governance cannot be purely antagonistic. As he points out in an interview for ANSA-EAP: “Anti-corruption’s goal is not [solely] to send corrupt officials to the chair.” This flies into the face of that popular image of anti-corruption, which often concludes in the courtroom with a guilty verdict handed down to guilty officials.

In his interview, Masduki continues: “The concept of social accountability is more concerned with looking at ways to improve the condition of public services.” This is the second way social accountability complements formal anti-corruption: it emphasizes a different image of anti-corruption. It focuses on small-scale, easily-implementable means to make government policies work by improving information transparency, increasing participation and resource contribution from citizens and government workers, and ensuring efficient and effective uses of these resources, while deterring inefficiency, waste, and graft and corruption. Beyond making corruption too costly for the potentially guilty, it makes good governance profitable for all parties concerned: improved delivery of public services, career recognition and promotion, more votes for politicians and statesmen, a more civic-minded population. Indeed, beyond the revolutionary knocking down the rotten structure of corruption, social accountability takes the transformative step of laying down the foundations of a new and stronger structure of governance. “Stick and carrot”, after all.

There is an anecdote from Ninoy Aquino’s sacrifice that would probably shock us, considering its implications. One of his initial intentions for coming back to the Philippines was to offer Ferdinand Marcos a deal: he would reserve for the dictator a “respected place” in Philippine history in exchange for peacefully stepping down from power and restoring true democracy. In this episode we see Ninoy’s prudence and foresightedness. With every personal and historical reason to seek justice served upon Marcos, Ninoy (like Masduki, who likewise was imprisoned for his advocacy) still focused on the larger battle: restoring Philippine democracy and good governance—even if it risked Marcos “getting away with it,” at the least. This week, when we remember the infamous day when Ferdinand E. Marcos declared Martial Law in September 21, 1972, let us reflect also on how our experience of authoritarianism was accompanied by wide-spread corruption, the latter a plague from which we have not yet recovered.

Today, justice must again be served to hold accountable those who abused their power and betrayed public trust. We look to the present challenges of Ombudsman Carpio-Morales and the Aquino administration—but as Shakespeare wrote, “earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.” Social accountability seasons anti-corruption, and gives it depth; it completes it so that it is no longer about punishing the guilty, but also empowering the innocent. Instead of sprinters dashing for speedy justice, we see marathon runners pacing each step towards that distant goal of clean government. That is why as disappointed as I am about the lack of progress in having the Freedom of Information Act enacted, I am not ready to burn bridges with the current administration. In fact, we should rally around like-minded colleagues in government, like Budget Secretary Butch Abad, to achieve the maximum in open and transparent governance. After all, governance is too important to be left to government alone, and that good governance is not simply a matter of opposing the corrupt, but of helping our allies in government move the agenda forward - maybe not in a sprint, but more likely in the marathon that only the most committed can endure.

The greatest achievement that social accountability and anti-corruption can aim for is to teach a nation how to govern well. In that way, social accountability is not just an antidote to corruption but, in fact, indeed, becomes the basis for good governance.

The writer is Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG)  and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP).  This essay was first published in the 20 September 2011 online and print edition of the Manila Standard Today. It is featured in VOICES with the writer's permission. Dean La Viña can be reached through e-mail at tonylavs (at) gmail.com and twitter: tonylavs

No comments:

Post a Comment