Institutions are clusters of formal rules and informal norms that draw their power from the shared values and moral instincts of a people. These are the tools by which a society conducts its life.  Institutions shape our individual choices, acting as a brake on impulsive and selfish behavior.  They are strong or weak, adequate or inadequate to the complex requirements of modern living.

It used to be thought that all that was needed for the less-developed countries to grow and to be competitive was an infusion of capital and technology.   Thus, emphasis was put on building the infrastructure and dismantling existing barriers to the free flow of investments and knowledge. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were the main purveyors of this development ideology.  The outcomes of this experiment were not very encouraging, says the policy analyst Francis Fukuyama in his new book, “America at the Crossroads.”  So much external funding went into the pockets of politicians, many of them leaders of US-sponsored authoritarian regimes.

The disillusionment, Fukuyama argues, paved the way for the shift in emphasis to markets and global integration.  “Economic planning fell out of favor both in the developed and the less-developed world and was replaced by a strong emphasis on free markets and global economic integration.”  But in the late 1990s, the neo-liberal belief in the miracles of global integration came face to face with the realities of institutional failure.  “There are too many examples of countries with otherwise good prospects whose development was undermined by rapacious leaders, ethnic conflict, internal or external war, or other purely political factors.”

But, Fukuyama asks almost plaintively, how does one create modern institutions where they do not exist, or strengthen them where they are weak? He concedes that this is not mainly a technocratic problem, but a political one.  He cites poor fiscal management as an example.  Often, he says, the reason is not the absence of any framework to monitor budgets. “More often the problem comes from politicians who want to use public money to maintain patronage networks that are critical to their political survival.  Asking them to be fiscally responsible may be tantamount to asking them to commit political suicide….In the absence of internal political demand for reform, it may never be possible to get the institutions right.”

A case in point is our own pork barrel system which effectively entrenches patronage as a basic component of the political system. Congress already exercises the general power to shape the annual budget through tedious budget hearings and deliberations.  To go beyond this by allocating a so-called “countrywide development fund” to every legislator, who is then given the prerogative to designate the specific projects on which the fund is to be spent, goes against every norm of rational planning.  These are public funds.  The law says that their use must be based on public policies and priorities rather than on the personal preferences of politicians.  And yet we don’t hear loud protests against pork barrel.

Apart from its corrupting effects, the pork barrel makes our lawmakers virtual captives of the executive who controls budget releases. This power of the executive grows even more every time Congress fails to enact a new budget. Because of the enormous leeway it gives to the president, a re-enacted budget becomes nothing more than a huge pork barrel.

No other president, except maybe Marcos, has mastered the science of patronage better than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  She knows how to juggle items in the budget, where to draw the funds, when and how to channel them into the patronage network.  And no president has preyed upon the weaknesses of our system in the name of political survival as much as Ms Arroyo.  A study of executive behavior during the last two impeachment proceedings would yield valuable insights into the vulnerabilities not only of our fiscal management procedures but indeed of the whole political system.

It is not as if political modernity were new to us.  We have all the requisite institutions that would allow us to function as a modern state.  The problem is that they cannot properly function because of the persistent pressure to which they are subjected by the decadent political system.  Unless the political system itself is reformed, the pressure emanating today from the intensification of political conflict will crush every standing institution in our society.  Yesterday, it was the Commission on Elections and the Armed Forces.  Today it is the Ombudsman and the Professional Regulations Commission. Tomorrow it could be the Supreme Court, the Foreign Service and the whole civil service.

The problem is ultimately political, and so the solution must be sought in the realm of the political.  I do not think that reform will come spontaneously.  It will have to be demanded on a sustained basis by an awakened public that has seen how its fundamental interests are daily being harmed by existing political practice.  Given the prevailing mood of cynicism, it is unrealistic to imagine that a nation-wide reform movement can arise overnight.  I think it may gradually emerge from the focused work of various citizens’ groups who are critical of the present system.  But for such a movement to endure, it will have to seize the imagination of the poor, who stand to gain the most from the demise of the obsolete and rapacious system that has hobbled the Filipino nation from the start.

Comments to <>