Transparency chief lays out case for FOI bill

Posted at 01/30/13 8:47 PM

Transparency chief: Lack of transparency kills soldiers

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines must pass the freedom of information (FOI) bill if it wants to stamp out corruption in government, the chairperson of Transparency International said Wednesday.

Speaking to ANC, Transparency International chair Huguette Labelle said every country needs strong laws on access to information and protection of whistle-blowers to ensure transparency and accountability in government.

“Every country needs to have a good legislative framework and an important piece of legislation is freedom of access to information. We also need good whistle-blower protection as well so these are two important pieces of legislation. I understand that in the Philippines, this has been a project in front of Parliament for a period of time,” she said in the interview.

“I will certainly, during our meeting, encourage parliamentarians in the Philippines to pass this legislation because it will really demonstrate to the public of the Philippines and other counties in the world that the government sees this and Parliament sees this as a right and as a duty of the leaders to provide that information and the people would feel empowered as well.”

Labelle noted that what governments are currently doing is publish more information about government projects. She said that despite the increased transparency, governments still need to pass an FOI law so that people will have a strong tool to access information.

Labelle is in the Philippines as one of the speakers in the 5th Conference of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption (GOPAC).

Her visit came a day after Transparency International published its Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index, which included the Philippines among countries found to be in "very high risk" of corruption in its military and police institutions. (http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/-depth/01/29/13/very-high-risk-corruption-seen-ph-defense-sector)

Mark Pyman, director of Transparency International UK's Defense and Security Program, said the survey looked not only at the potential for corruption in defense contracts, but also at the risk of abuse of defense budgets and the risk of corruption in the armed forces.

The 82 countries surveyed account for 94 per cent of global military expenditure in 2011, worth $1.6 trillion, while the global cost of corruption in the defense sector is estimated to be at least $20 billion a year, the watchdog said.

The Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) has a budget of P80.42 billion for 2013.

How lack of transparency kills soldiers

In the interview, Labelle said the main objective of the survey is to try to ensure that governments will have less corruption in the field of defense through better transparency.

She noted that national defense is a high expenditure area for most countries.

“Where there is a lot of money, there is a danger [that] vulnerability to corruption is much higher. It goes beyond that. You have a lot of arms. You have a lot of equipment. On one hand, you want to make sure that these arms do not get into the wrong hands because it could feed terrorism. It could feed illicit trade in arms,” she said.

She added: “But the other aspect is very often with corruption, the result is the buying of equipment which is not up to par. If you have helmets that do not have the kind of thickness or the capacity to prevent bullets from entering the brain, then you kill your own men and women. They get killed in combat.”

Labelle said the Transparency International's anti-corruption index used information given by governments as well as what other information is available on the public domain. She said governments were allowed to respond to make sure the information collected was complete.

The Transparency International official said the survey also focused on defense contractors and their relationships with defense departments. She noted that there is “a lot of concentration in the defense areas especially in the big equipment.”

“Some of the aircraft or some of the ships, for example, you don’t have hundreds of companies providing those and that can be a complication,” she noted.

“Who were the sole source providers? Were they always the same people? Are they the brothers and sisters of somebody important, be it a general or somebody in the administration? Because all of that leads to either higher costs (or) shoddy purchases that are potentially dangerous for men and women in the Armed Forces, but also lack of public trust,” she added.

Transparency from the top

Labelle said some governments invoke national security when it comes to information on police and military procurements because of the amounts involved and the hazard of corruption.

She said that while some information might need to be protected, it does not mean that all information about the government’s procurement process should be withheld from the public.

“If you have good bidding processes, transparent bidding processes, you would probably get better equipment and also it is going to cost you less and therefore you will have more resources to be able to fill the mandate of that department or the overall budget will not have to be as high so that you have money to meet some of the other priorities of the government,” she said.

Labelle said Germany and Australia topped the Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index because of strong anti-corruption measures including complete transparency of their defense budgets.

“Their budget in detail was public. It was not just an aggregate, a number at the top. It was a detailed budget. Secondly, their procurements were publicly available. They had means of oversight of the bidding process,” she said.

She also said transparency in government should come from the top, with the President, Defense Secretary and Armed Forces chief of staff working together to stamp out corruption in the defense sector.

“It starts at the top, be it the President, the Prime Minister. Because, you know, they have to provide the strong leadership and they are usually the ultimate authority in terms of the armed forces. Then it’s your chief of staff. If there is a secular side, a layman’s side to defense, then the DND which works with the chief of staff. This is where the leadership has to be very strong,” she said.

“Now, to develop a culture of transparency and integrity in an institution is not necessarily easy. You’ve got to go beyond the statements that you have zero tolerance for corruption, that you are a highly ethical institution, and give yourselves the systems, the means to give it effect.”