CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 24 July) – It’s no surprise that plunder or cases of graft and corruption that draw the attention of people in the capital quickly gain prominence and wide currency.
It’s the magnitude or gravity of the crime—involving amounts previously unimagined—and the effrontery with which these are committed, and of course the personalities who commit them. Sensational!
In fact, what they do are just the “wholesale” manifestation of “retail” instances of graft and corruption that routinely take place below—in barangays, towns, cities, and provinces. But these go unnoticed for the most part.
The frequency and fairly widespread character of these misdemeanors cause them to acquire normality: “Natural lang yan! No big deal!”—goes the folk reaction.
Out of such folksy “wisdom” a general sense of tolerance arises until criminal behavior takes on the appearance of ordinariness, as something to be expected. And that of course rounds out the cycle of corruption from its genesis to where we see a senator caught with his hands in the till.
Things would not reach the point of tolerance towards corruption if people would not ignore, or tolerate, small occurrences in the community—especially violations of seeming insignificance but which in fact reinforce tolerance of venality if not outright criminality.
Patronage and the “epal” practice, for instance. It’s in barangay neighborhoods where patronage is dispensed and billboards and posters are planted conspicuously to draw attention to the “generosity” and “thoughtfulness” of project sponsors.
It’s in the barangay where crooked ward leaders recruit and pay people to produce a crowd demonstrating in favor of his political boss or against his opponent.
During elections, they prowl the households armed with favors and handouts that are repaid with votes; or they buy the votes outright.
It’s also in these neighborhoods where the hakot of flying voters begin and end: rent-a-crowd contracting. They round up and ferry people from where they are to where they’re paid to be: a staged rally, a public extravaganza to make someone appear popular, or to polling places.
No candidate, local or national, gets elected unless he corrals the votes in these neighborhoods; so he pours dirty money on them. Though unnoticed, petty corruption is actually widespread in barangays.
General tolerance of seemingly small occurrences make them seem innocent and ordinary. Before you know it, the tolerance has spread horizontally to other barangays and vertically up the food chain of politics till it infects putative statesmen and poisons the bureaucracy.
Like the way culture develops—starting with the practices and customs of the people in the community, getting adopted by others, becoming generalized until it becomes a national phenomenon—graft and corruption becomes a cultural characteristic unless arrested at source, in the community by the constituents themselves.
Like jueteng in Luzon and masiao in Visayas and Mindanao, graft and corruption operates in the neighborhoods of the barangay—coddling the idle, luring the weak, wooing the gullible with favors, promises, and bizarre theatrics.
From there it spreads everywhere until whole towns, cities, provinces, and regions are corrupted.
By then the problem has reached unmanageable proportions.
To try to stop it through upper level initiatives, or to rely on national agencies to do it, is like asking them to win a canny shell game. There are too many barangays to pinpoint or second-guess and the local operators are nested in the hidden warrens of the community.
Thus, for genuine reforms to take hold, it must be initiated and embedded in the community, cheek by jowl with the agents of corruption. There is no substitute for initiating it locally. No one can arrest corruption or reform local politics and governance as effectively as the constituents.
The motive force must spring from a sense-of-community that looks out for the welfare of all sectors, not just some; and the thrust must be to secure the welfare of the entire community—not just its favored neighborhoods.
A community needs to look out for its own and provide for the wellbeing of its members. And neighborhood cooperation is needed to neutralize the corruptors’ divide-and-rule, rich-versus-poor strategy—which shatters solidarity and weakens the fabric of the Social Order.
To safeguard society’s values, vigilance and oversight are needed in every barangay, especially in the neglected or little-noticed sitios and puroks where the most vulnerable sectors live.
It doesn’t even have to involve everyone because there are 100 million Filipinos. We just need enough Filipinos to be attentive and protective of their community. How about it?
[Manny was UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asia Publishers Association; director, Development Academy of Philippines; vice chair, Local Government Academy; member, Cory Government’s Peace Panel, and PPI-UNICEF outstanding columnist awardee. He is president and national convenor of Gising Barangay Movement Inc. firstname.lastname@example.org]