Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When corruption turns into a shadow government

When corruption in government is the rule, honesty becomes the deviant behaviour. Everybody already knows why a public official takes bribes, steals from the public coffers, or distributes administrative advantages in return for material gain. No one will disagree that this constitutes a misuse of public office for private gain.

There are others who would even argue that there are circumstances in which illegal practices like bribery, embezzlement, kickbacks, etc., can enhance the ability of state leaders to achieve compliance with their commands.

Under this logic, the president as commander-in-chief of the army could be justified to allow his or her generals to use public funds for their personal gain or get kickbacks from government contracts with the private sector in order to keep them at bay, or from being restless and antsy about usurping political power. In the Philippines, the sheer number of retired high-ranking military officials in sensitive government posts indicates the effectiveness of this practice of rewarding loyalty to the commander-in-chief. If corruption, in this sense, promotes institutional integrity or effective command, treating corruption as merely a specific set of illegal practices becomes not just debatable, but very misleading as well.

This twisted significance of corruption in promoting a sense of equilibrium in public affairs applies to all levels of government, and not simply to rewarding a loyal military. Consider the electoral process by which voters select their representatives. As voters, they entrust their representatives to act on their behalf. When representatives use the resources of government, which voters bestow upon them so that may function effectively, to serve their special interests rather than the public that they have been entrusted to represent, they are no longer acting as agents of the people who voted for them. This form of corruption is pervasive. Politicians accept money or favours in exchange for advancing legislation. Politicians award government contracts or sell off enterprises in exchange for kickbacks rather than seeking the lowest bid. Politicians raid state coffers or draw on state resources for personal use. In many such cases, we speak of the state as having been captured by private interests, so that government no longer represents the public’s interest.

The bitter irony is that democracy does not also help in curbing corruption. It appears that the electoral mechanism does not work as expected: corrupt politicians are not severely punished at the polls, and regularly they stand good chances for re-election. A study made in 2007 finds that on average deputies of the Italian legislature charged with corruption under the post-World War II period have enjoyed a re-election rate of 51 per cent, compared to 58 per cent for their putatively honest counterpart.

As an institution by itself, corruption could be used to sustain or even extend leaders’ authority over their subordinates. The receipts from corruption serve as an additional incentive, like an informal second salary granted to subordinates in exchange for their continued loyalty. Under such arrangement, some degree of bribery and embezzlement would be condoned. The rule of law becomes compromised, but the discretionary capacity of the state, i.e., its capacity to impose the will of the leader, is not. Indeed, the probability of compliance with leaders’ licit and illicit directives is enhanced.

So long as corruption, therefore, enhances the capacity of state leaders to secure compliance with their directives in exchange for loyalty and obedience, corruption becomes an effective tool in reinforcing the government’s vertical hierarchy. Command is secured, therefore the state will always be stable and its institutional integrity remains intact. If there is any opposition left, it has been reduced to a level of ineffectiveness. In other words, the subversion of democracy has been complete.

Hence, addressing the problem of corruption simply through incentive schemes, stricter regulations and lofty policy reforms will always be ineffective and inadequate in these circumstances. Such measures are less potent in rooting out the real causes of corruption.

Let’s take the Philippines, for example. In an effort to fight corruption, the government through the Office of the Ombudsman has invested in youth and value formation programs under the Corruption Prevention Units and Junior Graftwatch Unit Programs. These programs are composed of students and community volunteers who serve as active collaborators of the Ombudsman down to the local barangay (administrative village) level—involving the community, as it were, in the fight against graft and corruption in the hope of creating a graft-intolerant culture in the future.

But the real benefits of such value formation programs could only be promising, not immediate, and even arguably doubtful. So the government continues to rely on prosecution, which unfortunately has not served as an effective deterrent to corruption. The conviction rate of the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP) at the Sandiganbayan (the Anti-Graft Court) is a dismal 6 per cent.

Put differently, this means that a high-ranking government official accused of graft and corruption has a 94 per cent chance of walking away scot-free. In other words, persecution of corruption is not working because the OSP does not have the number and quality of legal manpower to match many of those accused before the Sandiganbayan. In many instances, those accused are powerful public officials who have at their disposal the services of highly-paid private lawyers and have retained their close links with powerful politicians who support them.

The OSP has also engaged in law reform initiatives and campaigned before the leaders of Congress for the passage of legislation allowing private practitioners to appear as prosecutors before the Sandiganbayan to help remedy the Office’s severe current lack of prosecutors. It has lobbied Congress to upgrade the salaries of its prosecutors and graft investigators with the end in view that a more competitive salary scale would enable it to recruit from the best law schools and hire more competent legal personnel. In addition, the OSP has requested the Supreme Court to consider the feasibility of designating, among the regular courts, special courts that will try graft and corruption cases committed by low-ranking officials, which will also provide opportunities for proper training to the presiding judges of these special courts and the prosecutors handling graft cases.

But overall, corruption in the Philippines has remained unabated. Corrupt behaviour continues to be not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. The woeful experience of the OSP and the Sandiganbayan in prosecuting corruption in the Philippines reflects only those cases committed at the higher echelons of government.

If all instances of corruption from top to bottom of government are considered, the state of corruption in the Philippines would probably indicate that it has blossomed into another branch of government by itself, or perhaps even a shadow government.

In 1999, upon the request of the Estrada administration, the World Bank developed a national strategy for fighting corruption in the Philippines that focused on reducing opportunities for corruption and making corruption a high-risk, low reward activity. Again, this strategy approaches corruption as an identifiable specific set of practices which are then targeted by an incentive structure and reform-oriented policies all aimed to achieve a quick-fix of the problem.

We all know now that Joseph Estrada was ousted from the presidency because of corruption, and it was not just the popular people’s revolution that removed him from power but his own behaviour that was linked with widespread corruption during his short-lived term. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who succeeded Estrada, may also suffer a similar fate and only time will tell when the pervasive corruption in her government will burst at its seams.

Perhaps, we should start to veer away from the traditional concept of corruption as simply an illicit form of behaviour that can be made to disappear by fixing the incentive structure or the institutional setting that has dominated most current strategies to combat corruption.

It is about time to see corruption through another lens --- to regard corruption as the subversion of democracy and the capture of the state. Describing corruption as a principal-agent problem does not provide us with effective answers because the solutions this approach offers tend to be limited to law enforcement, compliance, and the limits to the capacity of the state.

We can now almost infer from various studies about corruption that practices such as bribery and embezzlement in government do not merely provide evidence of the breakdown of state authority. More importantly, such studies also indicate that when such practices are permitted as means to ensure compliance of subordinate officials to state leaders, the existence of an informal state apparatus or a shadow state is engendered and is used by state leaders to extend their power beyond the limits of their legal authority.

When another arm of government is established, such as a shadow state, in all probability it will undermine the formal institutions of a democratic regime. This may explain why corruption is so pervasive in less politically mature constitutional democracies or countries of the post-Communist and developing world, and may also account for why corruption has been so difficult to eradicate in certain countries.

If the pervasiveness of corrupt practices only signals a breakdown of political authority, then political leaders would have clear incentives to overcome it, but if corruption plays an important role in the informal institutions of political domination, then leaders have every incentive to sustain it.

So, wherein lies the solution to corruption?

In 2005, the Concerned Artists of the Philippines presented a very interesting paper to the National Study Conference on Corruption. They argued:

“Any anti-corruption campaign by the government will result in merely superficial effects, because it is contradictory to the nature of its existence. With the present system, how political and economic power is gained and maintained is at the root of corruption. Pervasive corruption promotes the culture of corruption among the elites and reinforces the disempowerment of the masses. The cycle continues, as the culture of corruption and a disempowered people perpetuate elitist political and economic power.

“Corruption benefits the political and economic elites as it facilitates their sell-out and exploitation of our country's human and natural resources. The victims of corruption are the Filipino masses. This is the reason why we should persist in countering corruption.

“However, it is of utmost importance to extend our efforts to actively resisting unequal treaties, foreign dictates, the exploitative political and economic system, and the corruption of culture. These actions nurture love of country, honesty, integrity, and other positive values based on pursuing the interest of the people and our nation. This is a concretization of a holistic anti-corruption drive.”

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Americanization of the world

The year 1917 was crucial for America. In that year, the Americanization of the world would commence with the entry of the United States in World War I. When Woodrow Wilson proclaimed “the world must be safe for democracy” on April 2, 1917, he ended years of American isolationism. For the first time, two million American soldiers were on a mission to decide a European war, to teach the Old World a lesson. That Wilsonian proclamation became the impetus to revive the old notion of national self-determination, an idea that was rusting since the days of William Gladstone or even farther. But it was national self-determination in the mould and shape of American democracy, not that of British Liberalism which Gladstone and politicians of his days subscribed to.

World War I destroyed the German monarchy. To Woodrow Wilson and his cohorts, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It was meant to be the historic fulfillment of democracy, the greatest event in world history since the coming of Christ. This foreign policy would later be America’s predominant view of the world, the doctrine adopted and pursued by different American presidents from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Richard Nixon down to the incumbent George W. Bush.

By the end of World War II, the United States was on the top of the world. The Americanization of the world leaped forward in full swing. In 1945 the American dollar was at its highest peak, and the American navy alone was larger than all the navies of the rest of the world combined. Five decades later, on Christmas day in 1991, the Soviet Union officially ended its own existence, marking the end of 45 years of cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. So there came to be one superpower left in the world, the United States, a triumph for American Democracy that would continue to be haunted by regional wars in the Middle East, some parts of Asia and Africa, and in Latin America.

Without argument, the history of the democratization of the world is inseparable and identical with the Americanization of the world. It was in the name of democracy and making the world safe for democracy that America joined World War I. The rise of tyranny and dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Japan, however, shattered the peace treaties signed after World War I. In 1941, the Second World War broke out. Again, the American military might led the war against these enemies of democracy during World War II to restore peace and continue the Americanization of the world. From 1945 onwards, the consolidation of communism through the Soviet Union and its satellite countries became the major threat to capitalist democracy espoused by the U.S.A. The U.S. went to Vietnam, Korea and Central America to prevent nascent democracies from being engulfed by the spread of communism and to save aging autocratic regimes from being overthrown by their people’s uprisings and become prey to communist takeovers.

After the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the eventual weakening of the communist front, a new enemy emerged against American democratic imperialism. This time, it would be George W. Bush waging his pre-emptive military strikes against countries that provide refuge and comfort to followers of extremist Islam and terrorism. Sometimes the line differentiating Islamic fundamentalism in its extreme form and terrorism has been blurred by America’s military strategists that followers of fundamental Islam are deemed identical to being terrorists.

In justifying the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush has invoked America’s duty as the leader of the free world. Bush declared:

“The world seeks America’s leadership, looks for leadership from a country whose values are freedom and justice and equality. Ours should not be the paternalistic leadership of an arrogant big brother, but the inviting and welcoming leadership of a great and noble nation. We have a collective responsibility as citizens of the greatest and freest nation in the world. America must not retreat within its borders. Our greatest export is freedom, and we have a moral obligation to champion it throughout the world.”

Bush continues to say that America should speak loudly and carry a big stick. According to Bush:

“Peace is not ordained, it is earned. Building a durable peace requires strong alliances, expanding trade and confident diplomacy. It requires tough realism in our dealings with China and Russia. It requires firmness with regimes like North Korea and Iraq, regimes that hate our values and resent our success. And the foundation of our peace is a strong, capable, and modern American military.”

The imperialist motive in the statements made by George W. Bush is nothing new. It echoes the same sentiments expressed by Woodrow Wilson in his early views on international affairs and trade during his Columbia University lectures of April 1907, where he said:

“Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down…Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.”

This kind of thinking is very evident in many examples of standing to the greatness of America. In 1900, the imperialist Albert J. Beveridge said that “God has made us the master-organizers of this world.” Even the Catholic Archbishop Dennis O’Connell in 1898 said: “Now God passes the banner in the hands of America, to bear it...America is God’s apostle in modern times... War is often God’s way of moving things onward...the survival of the fittest.”

Was it not Abraham Lincoln who said of America as “the last best hope of mankind”? Perhaps, the best quote of America’s aspiration for imperial power is contained in William McKinley’s Manifest Destiny, when he said:

“When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonourable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”

And if America is not watchful of the next president it will choose this coming November election, listen to what John McCain has said on the same topic:

“I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not.”

The Americanization of the world has progressed through significant periods of patriotism to nationalism, isolationism and protectionism, from colonial expansion to two global wars to make the world safe for democracy, from combating communism to fighting terrorism, all in the name of American liberal democracy. We may yet see the decline of the great American empire not unsimilar to the fall of the great empires of the past, the British, the Spanish and the Dutch.

After the Americanization of the world has finally waned, a new world order could rise from its ruins, the beginning of real respect for each country’s freedom to choose how to govern itself and how to conduct its affairs with the rest of the world, where humanity is more important than the individual, and where the rule of law is not just a mere slogan.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Getting involved

There are at least two ways to get involved in the affairs of the government. One, which is unavoidable unless you are willing to suffer the consequences, is to pay taxes. The other one, which is both a civic duty and a right but can be avoided with the least of inconvenience or suffering on one’s part, is to vote.

Most often, one cannot escape paying taxes. They are deducted from your pay or added to the cost of goods or services you buy. Ironically, only those who can really afford to pay taxes are the ones who are in the best position to evade paying them. Those with lesser incomes are content to receive even a small refund for any taxes they have overpaid.

Voting, on the other hand, is purely voluntary, even as we've been pounded by school civics that every citizen must exercise the right to vote. There is no sanction against you if you don’t vote. While people commonly react to taxes by grumbling that they are too excessive, people just don’t care come election time. But what many do not understand is that they have the power to reduce taxes, and this can be done by voting for representatives who can speak for them in Congress or Parliament about why taxes should be lowered or even abolished.

This is why voting is commonly regarded as the first step in civic engagement. Voting means empowerment, as it places in your hands the power to choose the leader who will make decisions for your government. But voting is not the only way to make a difference in the civic life of our communities. We can run for office and get elected, or we can become involved in the larger social fabric, recognizing that our society’s social, economic and political problems are at least partly our own, or that the moral and civic dimensions of such issues prod us to be involved and take active participation in their resolution.

Civic engagement is possible either through political or non-political processes, through public service or voluntarism. Or as Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s candidate for the U.S. presidency, would say: “One of the acts of citizenship is paying attention to what is happening.” Listening to the public debate or attending town hall meetings is one way to be engaged in the civic life of the nation.

People today have less confidence in their elected officials and the institution of government. This mistrust of government is very high among the young, thus the challenge of civic participation lies in reaching ou to young people.

Politics’ dirty reputation has driven a lot of people from participating in the political process. Election turnout is getting less and less as years go by. Politics has become a game, where there are only winners and losers. Oftentimes, the issues that really matter are obscured by the clash of personalities. We need to rise above this petty notion of politics if we are to encourage others to get involved in the civic process.

Despite its bad reputation, politics is still largely how we build our future together. It is through politics that we create alliances, negotiate and decide on options for change or alternative ways of doing things. Politics can be a wholesome and productive process if the networks and bonds we form during election campaigns are used to create alternatives and solutions to our social problems. Becoming involved in political campaigns, whatever your political persuasion, has much more impact on the civic society than simply exercising your choice on the ballot on election day, which is not very often. You see the various sides to issues, you hear the pros and cons to arguments, and you participate in informing the citizenry of what their choices are. This is why the Greeks 2,500 years ago developed the concepts of the agora and assembly as central public spaces where people could come together to dialogue and freely exchange opinions.

In addition to getting involved in the political process, one can also make a significant contribution to the larger society by adopting and supporting social causes, such as the preservation of the environment, nuclear disarmament, making poverty history, or fighting AIDS in Africa. Being involved in nonprofit organizations helps strengthen our community’s identity, one that cares and shows compassion for others. Our contribution, big or small, carries the same weight, whether it is for the promotion of the arts or collecting food donations for the needy.

Getting involved in this age of the Internet is much easier and a lot livelier. Popular interactive websites like Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, eBay, craigslist, and YouTube make the exchange of ideas, goods and services even more free and accessible to almost everyone. Don’t forfeit your right to get engaged and be involved in these exciting times.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Remembering the disappeared

Nazi Germany used a tactic notoriously known as Nach und Nebel (Night and Fog) to silence opposition to Adolf Hitler. Without warning, the Nazis swooped down on their opponents, then killed them on the spot or sent them to concentration camps. They would never be heard from again. Approximately six million European Jews were killed in a programme of deliberate extermination planned and executed by the Nazi regime.

More than twenty years later after World War II, General Augusto Pinochet staged a military coup in Chile and would install himself as his country’s dictator for 17 years. Nearly three thousand people were executed, disappeared or died from torture during that military regime. Until now, there is no official record of the thousands of Chileans who were forcibly disappeared, killed or tortured during the 17-year dictatorship.

Between 1976 and 1983, more than 30,000 people were estimated to have been forced to disappear in Argentina under the country’s ruling military junta. Close to 9,000 cases had been verified from military officers who were involved in Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” where many victims were drugged and dumped alive out of airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean, thus leaving no trace of their passing.

Many would also suffer forced disappearances during the Great Purge in the former Soviet Union. In Iraq, tens of thousands of people disappeared under the regime of Saddam Hussein during its Operation Anfal. Similarly, there are also allegations of suspected terrorists captured by the United States military in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that are being sent to undisclosed CIA-run prisons overseas, thus providing speculation why the U.S. government has abstained from signing the United Nations’ ban on forced disappearances.

In the Philippines, those who dared to oppose the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have also been forced to disappear or become victims of extrajudicial killings. Since Arroyo came to power through a popular uprising, the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan) has reported 910 victims of extrajudicial killings and 193 victims of enforced disappearances from January 2001 to June 30, 2008. There were also thousands of victims of forced disappearances during the Marcos dictatorship that preceded the Arroyo government by about 17 years; the identities or bodies of these victims continue to remain unaccounted for up to the present.

Despite the report made by Prof. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the Philippine government under Mrs. Arroyo continues to refuse implementing the Alston report. The Alston report has concluded that state security forces have been complicit in the killings of farmers, church activists and organizers, journalists, indigenous peoples, lawyers and others who opposed the Arroyo government. On their part, the Philippine military has blamed the local Communist Party and its army for the said killings or disappearances.

The failure of the Arroyo government to implement the recommendations drawn up by Prof. Alston clearly dishonours the Philippine government’s pledge and commitment to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

A person is said to have been forced to disappear when he or she is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or its agents, who then deny that the person is being held without charges or conceal their whereabouts, thus putting them outside the protection of the law. Most often, people who have disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown.

But a person who has disappeared has not just vanished. Someone is responsible and knows what has happened. Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law but all too often the perpetrators are never brought to justice.

A range of human rights is violated whenever someone is forced to disappear. Among these rights are:

• the right to security and dignity of person
• the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
• the right to humane conditions of detention
• the right to a legal personality
• the right to a fair trial
• the right to a family life
• when the disappeared person is killed, the right to life

Enforced disappearance results in a violation of the person who has disappeared, and a violation of those who love them.

A person who is forced to disappear is often tortured and in constant fear for their life. At the mercy of his or her captors, the disappeared person is removed from the protection of the law and deprived of all rights. And if the person does not die and is eventually released from captivity, they may continue to suffer for the rest of their life from the physical and emotional trauma of their dehumanization, and from the brutality and torture that usually accompany it.

The families and friends of the disappeared also suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved one. Not knowing if their loved one will ever return, they cannot mourn and adjust to their loss. They wait and hope, sometimes for years, for news that may never come.

We must condemn all enforced disappearances. All governments have the legal obligation and moral responsibility to bring to justice those who commit such crimes under international law.

We must also remember those who have disappeared, whether we knew them by their names or whose identities and bodies still remain engraved in the dark recesses of the minds of their perpetrators. We must honour them in our memory. As one philosopher wrote, those who do not remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.

We remember them so we will not forget the atrocity and brutality that they went through, for that memory will always keep our hope and belief in humanity, so that our vigilance will prevent these crimes from being repeated in the future.

We must not heed the words of General Augusto Pinochet when he said during the anniversary of his military dictatorship:

“It is better to remain quiet and to forget. That is the only thing we must do. We must forget. And that won’t happen if we continue opening up lawsuits, sending people to jail. FOR-GET: That’s the word. And for that to happen, both sides must forget and continue with their work.”

Instead, we must listen to the voices of the families of the disappeared. As one mother of a desaparecido said:

“Memory helps people so that the same crimes are not repeated, calling things by their real name, saying a criminal is a criminal ... The worst that could occur ... is to think that by forgetting we will do away with the problem.”

This is how Concepcion Empeno (Nanay Connie) remembers her daughter Karen who was abducted in Bulacan, a province in Central Philippines, on June 26, 2006. She vividly remembers that whenever she confronted her daughter why she left school to work with poor peasants in Bulacan, Karen would answer her, “Because I love you.”

“What kind of love is that?” Nanay Connie asked Karen once. She never understood what Karen meant until her daughter was abducted.

On the second year anniversary of Karen’s disappearance, Nanay Connie says, “I get my strength from Karen...Now I understand the kind of love she has been giving us; it is the same love that she shares to our poor countrymen.”

At the time she was abducted in Bulacan, Karen was a graduating student from the University of the Philippines where she was studying sociology because she wanted to learn about society. All she lacked was a thesis to complete her studies.

Or how Lorena Santos, whose father, Leo Velasco, a consultant with the National Democratic Front (NDF) in the Philippines, and her mother, Elizabeth Principe, were both abducted in separate incidents in 2007, would cope with her loss and keep the memories of her parents alive. Lorena said that they may have three different surnames in the family but they are still a family. Being a child of a couple wanted by government forces, they had to change their surnames for their personal safety.

Although her mother Elizabeth was resurfaced by the military nine months after her abduction in Quezon City, a neighbouring city of Manila in the Philippines, Lorena continues to talk and connect with the relatives and families of other disappeared persons. Lorena said they just have to continue searching and fighting for justice. “Enforced disappearances would stop only if there would be a change in the societal system,” she said.

“We need to participate, work for genuine change so that the memory of our loved ones would not fade in the history, the process of the people’s struggle,” Lorena added.

So we too must remember, so we will never forget. Every year on August 30, we can join citizens around the world in observing the International Day of the Disappeared to remember those who have disappeared and their families.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Happiness – the elusive dream

Happiness is a subject that has been debated more than any other topic throughout the history of mankind. Philosophers, priests, politicians, poets and even musicians have had a say on the subject. In 1988, for instance, Bobby McPherrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy was song of the year. If only life could be that simple as in the song, then we don’t really have to worry and we could be happy, all right.

The truth is, life is not so simple, and the quest for happiness is also one of the main causes of our unhappiness. Especially when we talk of happiness, not in individual terms, but in gross or national terms. We may, for example, ask, are Americans happy as a people? This question becomes relevant when one looks at American history to see if the United States has ever deemed the pursuit of happiness as a national objective. It may have been proposed for the first and the last time on July 4, 1776, by way of the American Declaration of Independence which considered the pursuit of happiness, in addition to life and liberty, as an inalienable human right.

But with the number of American soldiers dying in the war in Iraq, hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the city of New Orleans and its human landscape, and the unpopularity of Bush’s presidency, it’s probably safe to say that Americans are fed up and unhappy about the state of their nation. Here lies the difficulty in measuring happiness as a collective state or aggregate feeling. Individually, happiness may be gauged in relatively much easier terms to comprehend, depending on one’s personal objective in life, such as a stable job that pays well, a roof over one’s head, plenty of healthy food on the table, good grades in school, a nice car, or just being thin or fit. But we don’t measure the happiness of a country this way.

Economists have been content to use gross national product (GNP) as the litmus test of the health of a nation. Following Adam Smith’s philosophy, the wealth of a nation therefore determines the well-being of a nation. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink has observed that judging from the per capita gross domestic product of the United States, every American is three times richer today. But Americans do not feel one bit happier, according to Pink. He argues that there is enough evidence to prove that material wealth and happiness are no longer in sync in post-industrial societies. For instance, it has been observed that the number of people suffering from depression in industrialized countries had grown tenfold in 50 years.

An alternative approach to measuring happiness or well-being was developed by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan in 1972. He called it Gross National Happiness (GNH), an approach that departs from the economist’s reliance on quantitative indicators of human prosperity. Instead, GNH attempts to measure progress that accounts properly for the country’s social, cultural, and environmental assets as well as its economic development. In the words of King Wangchuck, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

GNH can be best summarized by its four pillars: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. Unlike conventional developmental models that stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, GNH emphasizes the true development of human society, and this is only possible when both material and social development is achieved by complementing and reinforcing each other.

The concept of Gross National Happiness has caught the attention of industrialized economies and it gave birth to other alternative measures such as the Happy Planet Index (HPI) used by the British think-tank, New Economic Foundation, and the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) developed through the Canadian Partnership Program. Bhutan and the more developed countries of the West are at opposite poles: Bhutan has the will, but not the information or basic data that advanced societies have.

It is quite convenient for a small nation like Bhutan to exaggerate the happiness of its people over economic prosperity by downplaying the significance of the quantitative measurement of its gross domestic product. But in the real world, when you add up the millions of people that live on the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 per day, the numbers are so staggering as to make this infatuation to the idea of gross national happiness appear rather silly and stupid. According to the World Bank, there are now 1.4 billion people living in poverty.

If King Wangchuck’s original idea was to equate gross national happiness as a public policy with how people feel about their lives, whatever meaning or import this concept has is already lost when we begin to think and worry about the 1.4 billion people wallowing in poverty on this planet. How are we going to deliver all these people from the pangs of poverty? Wouldn’t a lot of people be more than doubly happy to see this shameful number be reduced by half, at least? This preoccupation with the idea of measuring a people’s well-being through an alternative metrics that stresses the pursuit of happiness over purely economic terms is indicative of the idleness of the rich, a wasteful exercise by those who have very little to lose in psychoanalysing the roots of their own unhappiness.

There are more pressing issues on mankind’s agenda today: the inequalities of globalization (which creates new markets and wealth, even as it causes widespread suffering, disorder, and unrest), global warming and climate change, the threat of a nuclear war, and poverty and hunger. However, it could be in the pursuit of happiness that the solutions to these problems lie, and this is not an impossible dream, if we are really serious in finding true happiness.

Our sense of happiness is created by many things, assuming we have satisfied the basic necessities of human existence first. Just because we live in a rich country does not mean we should only care about the disconnect between our prosperity and our sense of well-being.

Perhaps we should consider that there are other higher values in life than happiness. That being happy by itself is not our life’s goal. That the good life is achieved through striving and yearning, improving and growing, inventing and discovering ways to make our individual and collective lives better. To live wisely and justly, with courage and generosity, or in the words of Aristotle, to be “great-souled” or magnanimous. Until we are able to reach out to the poor and the hungry, until we show respect and concern for others, until we see ourselves in the face of the other person, will we find our lives to be more meaningful, bring us closer to a blissful life.