The irony of Russia making “growth through trust and transparency” one of three “overarching priorities” during its presidency of the G-20 is unlikely to be appreciated by those civil society groups currently being targeted by the Kremlin. Nor is it likely to be missed by those leaders of countries which score poorly in global transparency and corruption rankings who may take comfort in the ongoing gap between rhetoric and reality in the West and thus see little need or pressure to undertake real reform at home.
Despite some clear gains in the G-20’s anti-corruption action plan in the areas of combating bribery and money laundering, perhaps too much claimed progress is based on governments’ own assessments of their performance — and too little emphasis given to external and more objective monitoring and engagement by ordinary citizens.
A similar criticism might also be made of the Open Government Partnership, the global initiative established in 2011 to promote greater public transparency and accountability where membership, more open than the G-20, is offered to all states which promise to do better for their people.
Too good to be true?
To great fanfare at home and barely a year into his six year term, President Benigno Aquino III signed up the Philippines to be one of eight founding members of the OGP. The man who had repeatedly linked the curse of corruption as a cause of poverty during his election campaign promised a step change in government behavior and a revolutionary new deal for Filipinos. His inaugural vow to make ordinary people his “boss” was pitch-perfect and exactly what citizens wanted to hear after suffering decades of top-down driven graft and plunder.
Such a rapid turnaround in the Philippines from being a model basket case of corruption and pitiful governance into a model of reform seemed almost too good to be true — and so it has turned out to be as the nation has been rocked in recent weeks by the kind of huge corruption scandal everybody had been led to believe was a thing of the past.
While not implicated himself, Aquino has come under heavy fire from an increasingly irate and mobilized citizenry for his lackluster reaction to a developing crisis that has engulfed his administration and seen many of the country’s most senior lawmakers stand accused of stealing $250 million worth of public funds.
As media observers have been noting, the official response to the scandal has laid bare how little has really changed in the three years since Aquino’s election and how patronage politics and a highly idiosyncratic approach to governance continues to leave the country with perennially weak institutions and structures.
The immediate impact has been and will no doubt remain a deepening cynicism among Filipinos and a belief in this highly religious nation that endemic corruption is something that has to be suffered and never banished.
Sadly, it didn’t have to be this way.
What then, are the lessons to be learned; was it avoidable and is there any way out?
For one, it was notable that while sound promises and commitments were all made by Aquino’s government, insufficient thought went into the detail or delivery: Making the people the boss was a great sound bite - but it very quickly became apparent that it was a wholly empty slogan with absolutely no administrative thinking or strategy behind it.
While the Philippines stood proud as a founder member of the OGP, a governance advisor working with the administration privately told me that Manila’s first self-assessment progress report on how it was improving citizen access to public data and engagement in government submitted to the OGP earlier this year was “charitable in the extreme.”
This is the danger of relying excessively on self-assessment and wanting to believe too much the self-interested promises of governments.
The signs were all there for all to see well before this latest corruption scandal broke: Aquino’s repeated failure over the past few years to support the Freedom of Information Bill despite repeated campaign pledges to do so, and his government’s wilful persecution of whistleblowers who have been instrumental in exposing every single major corruption scandal in the Philippines over the decade. The G-20 action plan on corruption comes down strongly in support for whistleblowers, but the government in Manila continues to attack those private citizens who expose corruption.
Crucial too has been the role of the international donor community, which was hugely impressed by the rhetoric and promises made by Aquino and his team — so much so that most of the anti-corruption and governance support they had been giving to civil society ended several years ago as most donors switched their efforts to working directly with the government. As a result, many well-established NGOs which were providing critical objective monitoring and assessments were starved of funds and forced to give up their work.
Donors should hedge their bets
While it is right and good to give new administrations which are loud on promises the benefit of the doubt, it is probably wiser for donors to hedge their bets and not fully switch horses.
Administrations come and go — but civil society — and the citizenry remain. Donors may well find it logistically easier to deal directly with governments which seem to offer real promise and commitment to improving transparency and accountability — and yet the most effective and sustainable way of building governance surely is in investing in the education and ability of ordinary citizens. Building accountability from the roots up can ultimately be more effective and lasting than trying to force it from the top down.
The international community flatly failed to engage the Cambodian people in the transition process after the civil war and build their capacity to participate and help shape processes in the wake of the U.N.-brokered peace treaty in the early 1990s, and the result was state capture and crony capitalism. Unfortunately, the international donor community seems to be replicating its past mistakes today in Myanmar by failing to properly support the ability of ordinary citizens there to fully understand and engage in the transition there.
As in Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and wherever, the more donors can help build fiscal literacy and a sense of public ownership of public funds in society, the more ordinary citizens can be helped to understand, organize, monitor and engage in their countries’ own development to best effect.
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