Each time I watch the TV series Mad Men, it reminds me of how the inner circle of advisers to President Benigno Aquino III crudely attempts to market their main man. First, they portrayed him as a crusader against corruption during the election campaign running on the empty mantra of “no corruption, no poverty.” And now, they catapulted him on the United Nations podium as the spokesperson for People Power, as if it were a brand patented by the Aquino family.
Speaking before the 65th UN General Assembly in New York, President Noynoy Aquino enjoined the world to embrace a global version of Filipino People Power in the battle against poverty. As if his mother President Cory Aquino’s ascension to the presidency through the EDSA Revolution was the great equalizer—the total package that could wipe out poverty.
So much for branding.
It’s about time for President Aquino to accept the cruel reality that there are now more poor people in the Philippines than at any other time in its history. Not even his late mother could do anything with the magic of People Power in arresting the rising tide of poverty in the country.
On what moral, political, economic or other grounds then did President Noynoy Aquino invoke that People Power, the one that Filipinos were once proud of and installed his mother to power, could be the vital instrument in achieving “equality and equitable progress in the world?”
Talk is cheap, but not when your government has just received a cheque for US$434 million (P19 billion) as financial assistance from the United States.
The aid was part of an assistance compact under the auspices of the US-run Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who chairs the MCC, said the grant was to be used to build roads and carry out projects aimed at reducing poverty and fighting corruption.
Quite an irony to mention infrastructure and corruption in the same breadth, because our experience in the Philippines would tell us that building roads is a rich minefield for corruption in government.
President Noynoy Aquino was in New York to attend the UN summit on Millennium Development Goals (MDG), an initiative launched by the UN in 2000.
Representatives from all over the world, including heads of states, met to reaffirm their commitment to pursue the MDGs which are targeted for fulfillment by 2015. Here was an auspicious stage for President Aquino to shine by defining his government’s agenda to combat corruption under his mantra of “no corruption, no poverty.” Instead, he blew his chance to be relevant and decided to sell Filipino People Power as a great solution to the world’s social ills.
Does this tell us that he was just running on an empty slogan during the election campaign?
Transparency International (TI), the Berlin-based anti-graft group, has documented cases of corruption and breakdowns in governance as major reasons why many countries are struggling to reach the Millennium Development goals. This was the same group that named former Philippine presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada in the top ten list of most corrupt heads of state in the world.
If President Aquino and his inner sanctum had only found time to read the TI report before proceeding to the UN summit, they could have better appreciated that their campaign slogan of “no corruption, no poverty” would have resonated much more than selling People Power. Transparency International cited hard facts and figures to support its call for governments, donors, and non-governmental organizations to adopt anti-corruption measures in their action plans to reach the Millennium Development goals by 2015.
TI analyzed data from 42 countries where there was a higher incidence of graft and corruption.
For example, TI found out that where more bribes are paid, there is a lower literacy rate among 15- to-24-year-olds—one of the indicators used in tracking progress on the education MDG. It also found out that a rise in reported bribery is linked with higher maternal deaths in 64 countries, regardless of their country’s wealth or investment in health.
According to Transparency International, “corruption is like a regressive tax on needy households that sabotages attempts to eradicate poverty as part of meeting the MDGs.” This is so because poor families suffer more than richer households from demands for small bribes.
TI cited surveys in India where poor people have paid more than $200 million each year to access 11 supposedly-free services, including the police, hospitals, schools and employment benefits.
That sounds and looks like what’s happening in the Philippines.
All President Aquino has to do is to simply gather empirical evidence of the correlation between corruption and poverty, instead of merely mouthing worthless slogans. On the world’s biggest stage, he could have chosen to speak about corruption and how it hampers progress and the attainment of equality. But no, it was safer and better for the sound bites to talk about People Power instead.
When President Aquino returns home from his trip, he had better show to the Filipino people what anti-poverty program his government has, especially since after receiving an infusion of $434 million from the US government to wage his battle against corruption and to reduce poverty.
And should he continue to talk about making use of People Power, he must include the toiling masses, the labourers and farmers in the countryside, not only the influential rich and powerful business sectors of “Imperial Manila,” in mustering the people’s support for any government program to alleviate their conditions.
Otherwise, all the rhetoric about corruption and poverty disintegrates into pure talk and nothing else.