In Storm-Ravaged Philippines, Corruption Undermines Infrastructure

Some of the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan was not purely the result of the storm's huge force. Among the leading Asian economies, the Philippines regularly ranks as the most corrupt. Robert Siegel talks with Steven Rood, who runs the Asia Foundation's office in Manila, about how the nation's infrastructure problems, laid bare by the storm, relate to graft and corruption.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Philippines enjoys an unfortunate distinction. The country is regarded as the most corrupt among Asia's leading economies.

The monitoring group Transparency International says things have improved in recent years, slightly. But there's nothing like a major disaster to reveal infrastructure problems and the fruits of graft.

Steven Rood runs the Asia Foundation's office in Manila, and he joins us now. And I wonder, Mr. Rood, first, how does corruption manifest itself in the Philippines?

STEVEN ROOD: Well, one of the obvious manifestations is even if infrastructure is built to specs, there's less of it. So that, for instance, some of the islands affected by the typhoon that just came through have very few roads. And so, when those few roads are cut then there's very difficult to get land transportation into people who need help. And then, of course, shoddy construction makes it possible for more damage to occur than would normally occur if you had the correct specification for public sector(ph) structure. Similarly, at the day-to-day level, when you have buildings that are not built according to the building code and inspectors looked the other way, then they can be more susceptible to damage when a typhoon or an earthquake happens.

SIEGEL: Presumably, inspectors look the other way because they're paid to look the other way at that moment?

ROOD: That's right. That's right. And, you know, the practice of minor corruption, it can go on in places where the major corruption has been worked on. As Transparency International says, things are getting better in particular ways over the last few years because the current administration has staked its political future on fighting corruption.

SIEGEL: But given that this is no secret in the Philippines, as international relief workers encounter Filipinos who lost family members or property, what kind of attitudes toward the authorities are they likely to find?

ROOD: Well, in fact, local authorities are typically looked up to in terms of getting concrete assistance, so that as somebody comes in from the outside, for instance, international relief worker, and the average Philippine citizen understands that the international relief will be spent honestly, in the end, if the local executives can deliver water, shelter and so on, the average person is willing to look up to them even if there's evidence that other sorts of public corruption might be going on in the area.

SIEGEL: But national figures might be more suspect?

ROOD: National figures are somewhat more suspect. The current data tend to show that, unsurprisingly, members of congress are the least popular. The president continues to be very popular, particularly because his anticorruption thrust seems to have generated economic growth. And we'll have to see whether or not the response to the humanitarian disaster reinforces that.

SIEGEL: Well, in the coming months - if not years - I assume that a lot of international aid will flow into the Philippines. If it goes through Filipino officialdom, would you expect a certain amount of it to be sidetracked into the pockets of corrupt individuals?

ROOD: No. Actually, the Philippines has got a pretty good record in not having corruption flow from international efforts. It's when the normal day-to-day transactions happen when people relax that they can creep back in. We do a regular survey of business executives, private sector executives in the Philippines, Filipino executives, and they have reported a considerable decrease over the last couple of years in public-sector corruption - being asked for bribes and the like. But interestingly enough, they report no change in private sector behavior in terms of tax avoidance, in terms of keeping two sets of books and the like. So it seems that the society is basically waiting to see how long this anticorruption thrust will continue.

SIEGEL: Steven Rood, thank you very much for talking with us today.

ROOD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Rood is with the Asia Foundation. He spoke with us from Manila.

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