Thursday, March 10, 2005

Anti-corruption ribbons, badges

A few weeks ago we were high on the list of the world’s happiest people. This week’s news says we are number 2 on Asia’s graft and corruption list. Are we happy because we are corrupt or are we corrupt because we are happy? Okay, just kidding.

Gusto mong magkapera? (Do you want to make money?) My friend’s boss called my friend to his office one day to ask her that. My friend was working in a government agency/commission that was tasked to improve the lives of many and make people live in peace and harmony.

Easy, the boss told my friend who had spent many years in NGO work before she moved to the government to try it out. (She had since left.) Receipts were the secret. That’s not really a secret, is it?

My friend was so stunned. What came out of her mouth was a polite, ``No, sir, my husband makes enough for all our needs.’’

Why did you give that kind of excuse or reason? I asked. She could have given a better one. My point was: having enough money or being independently rich is not a reason for not stealing. Or that low pay is a justification for being corrupt. Why, some of the most rapacious and greedy already have so much to begin with. Stealing people’s money is simply wrong any way you look at it.

My friend said she was so shocked that was all she could say. Well, it must have been like meeting a flasher in a darkened alley, if you know what I mean. By the way, when confronted by one don’t charge or, worse, run away. That is what gives the exhibitionist gratification. Say something that will make the coward slink away with inferiority. Like, you’re not interested, then stare him down. They’re generally harmless, these types. But not the exhibitionists who wear their loot in so many subtle and vulgar ways.

That friend of mine, rather known for her colorful language, could only say so much at that time. No, thank you.

And how would she have made money? Well, it was not even big-time, like, on multi-million contracts. But there was something to be had in supplies, events and out-of-town trips and seminars in, uhm, nice places. Arrggh, the never-ending seminars.

What really disgusted me was the fact that the agency/commission where she worked was tasked to alleviate the plight of the poor and the neglected. Oh my God, I thought, all that money that was poured in there does not entirely go to the beneficiaries after all. So much goes to the perks of the bureaucracy and, worse, some of it goes to ghost expenses. There’s just so much people’s money wasted.

Always, anti-corruption advocates point to the big fish who take home the big loot and scandalize their subordinates. The corruption landscape is easy to picture, the solution easier said than done. Clean up the top and the bottom will follow?

A good number of squeaky-clean top-level government bureaucrats had come and gone but the graft-ridden bureaucracy lives on. There is a lot going on in the middle-level which is hard to shake down.

But, of course, there were big ones who stole in a grand way—the big-time plunderers who will never get to feel what it’s like to be strapped to the gurney like that rapist whom I watched die by lethal injection. But while there is great sense in keeping an eye on the big bosses, it would also be good to work on the small fry who know the nuts and bolts and who will themselves go up the ladder.

So why not try it the other way around? The small fry should give a good example to the bosses. If they are well-organized, if they know they have the support of the people they serve, if they realize they can’t get away with robbery and theft because their peers are watching, this sector in the bureaucracy might be able to set the standard for their bosses.

We focus so much on the individuals and we really feast on the big ones who get caught red-handed. We could even feel sorry for the ``smaller’’ ones who stole just a few grands but went to prison. But bigger than all of these corrupt big and small individuals combined is the culture of corruption that thrives. It is like a slimy body of water that gives life to vermin and a host of harmful organisms. That water has to be flushed out or changed.

Do I sound like a Girl Scout? Well, I was a Girl Scout. My badge was a badge of honor. And one of the things that I remember, aside from ``Be prepared’’ is ``Do a good turn daily.’’ I believed with my small heart that the world could be better if each one did that. There are good things we will always remember.

And so why don’t we make people always remember? Is there something that would remind those who work in the government and for the people that they are to be trusted, that they are to be honest? That we look to them to erase the curse of pangungurakot?

What about ribbons and stickers and badges and buttons? There is a ribbon color for every movement—purple for women against violence, red for AIDS, etc.

Some people might find wearing anti-corruption thingamajigs a very self-righteous, holier-than-thou practice. I say, the corrupt strut about in signature clothes and ride away to the sunrise in their SUVs, while the upright must hide in humility? The latter is false humility that embolden the hardened sticky-fingers.

Incidentally, a group of Cebu NGOs came up with a booklet titled ``Homily Guide on Corruption’’ which priests and preachers could use. Great. Surely many corrupt officials are also church-goers.