environment 6: beyond transparency


Junie Kalaw

The launching of the Coalition for Transparency in Government provided President Corazon Aquino an opportunity to focus on a quality of governance whose absence from the national scene has been a major impediment to honest political and social reform. It was acknowledged that the lack of transparency has served to encourage and hide corruption and protect the vested interests of politicians and their business partners. It was also accepted that its presence should be an important mechanism for the participation of people in development. But what is not often pointed out is that transparency has an active dimension: it involves publicly disclosing and revealing what is in mere storage. Deliberate secrecy in government transactions is a crime against transparency.

It has been argued that the transparency of government was proven by the explosive headlines merited by such anomalies as the congressional fondness for overpriced coconut juice, sleek uzis, and smuggled cars. There is a sense, however, in which these thunderous dramas actually obscured the larger issue of the continuing legitimized plunder of our natural resources by a privileged few through multinational land tenure, forest logging concessions, and foreign mining and fishing operations. Real transparency has to begin with a disclosure of the involvement of public officials in the primary exploitation of natural resources, and this obviously is a responsibility of the state, which controls all access.

Within the context of development (the professed objective of all governments), the most relevant, and at the same time simplest, question to ask is: who will benefit from it? Land reform for whom? Selective logging for whom? In short, development for whom? In the interests of transparency, it must also be asked who should plan for development. And since the great majority of Filipinos today live below the poverty line, the issue is not just economic in nature but concerns the structural stability of Philippine society.

Upon examination of the mechanisms government has made available to the people to enable them to participate creatively in the democratic planning process, it seems that government did not sufficiently understand that it could actually be adding to the general muddiness. Public hearings, for example, were attended mostly by politicians and businessmen with personal vested interests. The Senate hearings on the log ban bill were attended mostly by loggers and government bureaucrats. There was no representation from the ethnic groups, upland dwellers, small fishermen, and farmers who are most affected by the continuing denudation of forests. The consultative conferences government held with academics included non-government organizations (NGOs). But these consultations were really just venues for the legitimization of the sponsor’s position with no provisions for feedback from divergent positions, let alone their resolution.

The Aquino government did not disdain to use the tripartite councils initiated during the dictatorship. But while these councils may have had the potential to be effective mechanisms for people’s participation, they suffered the tyranny of withheld information. To be truly effective, these councils need to share equally with private and non-government organizations all information about project assumptions and analyses.

The situation was compounded by the constraints imposed by the matter of foreign debt. In view of the profound effects of foreign debt transactions on the quality of the Filipino lives, it might be supposed that it was logical to be transparent. But sadly, logic did not prevail, and circumstances were not helped any by the refusal of multilateral debtor agencies themselves, like the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, to make public their program analyses and loan conditions. In this manner the people were deprived of opportunities to participate in decisions to incur loans or to assist in monitoring compliance.

Government needs to be reminded: development is not something the government can do for the people but something people will have to do for themselves. The people have to be empowered, however, through deliberate and active sharing of information about the government menu of plans, transactions, and programs. In the interdependence of our life processes, sharing invariably tends to benefit the whole, whereas hoarding breeds subtle tyrannies.

Philippine Daily Inquirer 4 July 1989