Revisiting ‘daang matuwid’

In the opening paragraph of his sixth and final State of the Nation Address last July 27, President Aquino reminded his listeners of how, in the five years he has been in office, his administration put a stop to the culture of privilege (“wang-wang”) not just in the streets but everywhere in society, how he has fought corruption to eradicate poverty, and how our people’s sense of hope has been restored as a result of these reforms. “My bosses, this is the story of our journey along the straight path,” he said.

The President uses the term “daang matuwid” (straight path) as a label for his administration’s approach to governance, its reform agenda, and sometimes for the totality of its programs. One certainly cannot argue with this phrase’s strong resonance as a political slogan. With its sharp moral slant, it serves both as a denunciation of the crooked administration that preceded it, and as a statement of commitment to the principles of ethical governance that the late Cory Aquino symbolized. Indeed, more than anything else, it has defined P-Noy’s public image and legacy.

But, I have always wondered if “daang matuwid” contains an adequate analysis of the problems and challenges that the nation faces in the modern world. Or, whether it defines a clear set of objectives and priorities against which one can objectively measure the Aquino administration’s accomplishments.

Its accompanying slogan, “Kung walang korap, walang mahirap” (Without corruption, there will be no poverty), is pleasing to the ears but is misleading, to say the least. It reduces the complex problem of poverty to an issue of corrupt governance. I doubt if enough empirical evidence can be marshaled to support this bold cause-and-effect proposition. At most, corruption might be shown to aggravate poverty, but, surely, it cannot be its principal cause.

But, more than this, a formulation of this kind, when made to guide development strategy, tends to focus too much attention on compliance with existing indicators of good governance, and too little on the underlying structural causes of slow and uneven economic growth. It allows multilateral institutions to gloss over the deeper and broader roots of persistent underdevelopment, even as they deploy their governance experts to lecture countries like ours on the imperatives and “best practices” of good governance.

Let us, however, be clear about the point being made here: There is nothing wrong with good governance as a government goal. But using it as the prism through which to view the problem of poverty only creates fatal blind spots. Many good governance norms, such as those developed by the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” cannot realistically be adopted by underdeveloped societies given their existing conditions. Often, such societies devote precious time and energy putting governance reforms in place just to qualify for development assistance. Instead of using their limited resources and strengths to develop appropriate antipoverty strategies, they find themselves paying homage to good governance by participating in rituals of compliance under the supervision of global technocrats.

In an essay introducing the book “Is good governance good for development?” (UN Publications, August 2012), Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury sum up their objection to the World Bank’s governance indicators: “The ostensible evidence using [these] problematic measures actually suggests that growth and development improves governance, rather than vice-versa.” What they are saying, in effect, is that if a country takes care of growth and development, governance will usually take care of itself. As counterintuitive as it may sound, one might similarly argue, apropos the slogan “Kung walang korap, walang mahirap,” that where there is no poverty, there is less room for corruption.

One only needs to take a look at the Philippines’ most emblematic form of corruption in the last two years to see the plausibility of this reverse proposition. I refer to the pork barrel scam for which three Philippine senators and Janet Lim Napoles are today in jail. It was, as we all know, a racket that revolved around the highly politicized delivery of goods and services to the poor.

Educational and medical assistance, livelihood programs, and various other services formed the core of the lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund allocations for their impoverished constituents. No one—not even the “daang matuwid” policy—had found anything wrong in the legislators’ personal control over the disbursement of these public funds. For, indeed, how could anyone object to a mechanism that is meant to benefit the poor?

Napoles, however, brought the system to a new level of corruption by offering herself as a contractor who would not only take care of the paperwork but also, through her network of bogus NGOs and varied menu of fictitious projects, pay huge kickbacks. That is when the PDAF became problematic, and the abuse grave enough for the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.

The truth is: Corruption is found in every cavity of our political system. It is the heart and soul of patronage politics—the kind that thrives in societies where mass poverty exists. Every politician knows this. The traditional ones work within the system by projecting themselves as the poor’s source of relief, and they have no problem getting themselves and their kin elected. The modern ones seek an end to poverty through well-conceived strategies of economic growth and social development. That they seldom get elected is part of the curse of mass poverty.

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