The problem is, in a country where fixers are so entrenched that many people mistake them for employees, and the red tape is tangled and baroque, it can be hard to know when you’ve waded out of official bureaucracy and into the corruption system.
“I paid a bribe once,” Motte Muñoz confesses. While applying for his driver’s license, he was shuttled from window to window, filling out forms, waiting in line, paying fees. It wasn’t until he got home and checked how many fees were officially involved in a license application that he realized he’d paid one too many — an accidental 150 peso bribe to an enterprising teller.
“I got a receipt for it and everything,” Motte Muñoz says, “which the teller at the next window accepted.” The whole process was so seamless that even someone like him, who’s trying to fight this very type of corruption, can slip into it.
Henry Motte Muñoz, 27, was raised in London, Paris and Zurich, and educated at Harvard. His mother is from Pampanga, and he came home to the Philippines every year on summer breaks and Christmas holidays. “I’m very attached,” he says.
For this simple reason—and to live up to the privilege of his upbringing and education—Motte Muñoz looked for a way to give back to the country. He founded Bantay PH with his childhood friend, Happy Feraren, also 27. With Henry’s background in finance and Happy’s in advertising, starting a social enterprise to fight petty corruption wasn’t an obvious step. But, Happy says, “the Philippines is my home, and I’m sick of it.” A lifetime of getting shaken down by traffic cops and fixers was enough to spur Feraren to take on the challenge with Motte Muñoz.
To figure out how to best tackle corruption, Motte Muñoz pored over the models, successes and failures of other anti-corruption organizations across the globe. He decided that Bantay PH would focus on educating the customer, so they can better guard themselves against paying bribes, and know what to do when they’re asked for one.
Bantay PH has a series of posters outlining the process and rights of citizens dealing with PhilHealth, cash transfer programs, the driver’s license bureau and other government bureaucracies. (While it’s the rich that are most in the position to pay bribes to grease their bureaucratic encounters, it’s the poor that are most often squeezed for a few extra pesos. The masses are regularly shaken down by corrupt officials from anywhere between the Department of Education to their cash aid distributors or PhilHealth.)
Bantay PH also has an army of student volunteers checking up on different offices and issuing reports about compliance with existing laws. Originally funded by Motte Muñoz’s day job as a banker in London, Bantay PH now has the backing of the Makati Business Club and works with the Philippine government’s Civil Service Commission, among other partners.
However, not everyone who’s ever paid a bribe was tricked or forced into it. Many times people know they are paying a bribe, but they do it anyway. Because it is just so convenient.
For example, when Motte Muñoz, an EU citizen, was applying for his Philippine passport, it was suggested to him that 50,000 pesos could turn the drawn-out and time-consuming process into a fast and hassle-free one. He declined with his principles intact, but it took six years before he finally got his passport.
When given the choice between paying or dealing with ineptitude people, time and again, are tempted to bribe their way in. Would you prefer to have your application lost for months in slow-moving office on a paper-and-pencil system? Or would you pay someone with the harmless-sounding justification, ipapalakad lang niya (he’s just going to walk it through), so it gets done faster. Go through the hassle of paying a speeding ticket, or ask the nice police officers if there’s some way we can take care of this right now? You were on your way to McDonalds for coffee, maybe they’d like to join you?
When you pay to get something done faster, or to avoid a hassle, it makes corruption in the country incrementally worse. You’re feeding the beast, keeping the corruption system alive and healthy, putting it to work for you at the expense of everyone else, and most likely yourself, at a different place and time.
Consumer awareness isn’t the only problem, it’s just the one Bantay is addressing. Low pay for police officers, low motivation for enforcing anti-corruption laws, mismatched penalties where paying 500 or even 50,000 pesos is far preferable to suffering some overly severe, pulled-out-of-thin-air fine or punishment. Overly annoying red tape, and even an uncomfortable, airless waiting room people would pay not to spend four hours in, are the sort of conditions that give rise to bribery and corruption.
Widespread corruption is proof that Filipinos right now have a self-destructively high tolerance level for the practice. Bantay PH wants to change the way Filipinos think of corruption. “Our solution is a shift in mindset. Not accepting that corruption is an unchangeable part of the system,” Motte Muñoz says.
Motte Muñoz and Feraren are aiming for that with realistic goals. They know they can’t eradicate corruption completely, but they want to bring it down enough that the country works. They want to focus on the grassroots, low-level forms of public corruption, and keep sensational, high-level government corruption out of their wheelhouse, as well as tough nuts like the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the vast sea of private company corruption.
“A lot of people don’t believe in what we do,” Motte Muñoz says with the blithe confidence of someone who doesn’t care what they think.
“Because it does seem small,” Feraren adds. But those small things really add up. Take for example, Customs. It’s just one of the many agencies, public and private that’s a hotbed of corruption that’s estimated to result in a shortfall of 200 billion pesos for the government. By contrast, the poster child for high-level corruption, Janet Napoles took in one billion pesos, a mere drop in the corruption bucket.
“This is where the government most interacts with the people,” Feraren says, “If you can’t trust your government to perform even the most basic tasks, how can you trust it to run the country?”
In the end, it’ll be the small things that add up to big change.
Aurora Almendral is reporter and radio producer. Usually from New York, she is currently based in Manila.