News Commentary

Critical mass and anti-corruption movements

Shanice Espiritu - Philstar.com
Critical mass and anti-corruption movements
Photo shows P1,000-banknote.
Image by iiijaoyingiii from Pixabay

In social theory, the term “critical mass” refers to the phenomenon of having enough actors and groups that become big enough to create change. The term is self-explanatory: movements need to accumulate a certain number of agents in order to change a setting or an outcome.

Great social movements are often based upon critical mass -- one that is composed not only of government, but civil society groups, scholars and the academe, and of course, the general public. 

The accumulation of critical mass and the effects it can have on our society are not new to us, and we have also heard of stories of mass social movements on race, rights, and expressions of freedom that have created tidal waves of change across countries. They did this by changing perspectives, legislation, and even national cultures. The concept of critical mass has expanded from mere protesting to doing groundwork, influencing mindsets, and allowing more buy-ins from people to support the cause or the idea.

Imagine a country where we have achieved critical mass for zero-tolerance of corruption, widespread transparency and accountability, a movement fuelled by unfortunate events, but sustained over time. 

Anti-corruption movements in the Philippines are in a critical position. Key movers are either fatigued or feel that they are a minority in places where corrupt activities proliferate. 

For instance, I was speaking with a professor on the dangers of studying corruption in the country. Their group that studied corrupt activity in a key sector in the Philippines uncovered that bribes to public sector officials ranged from 40%-50% of the total award amount. While these findings were significant, being the minority meant that their lives would be in danger, which would lead to these findings never seeing the light of day. 

Another is the fatigue of constantly pushing for reforms. Many anti-corruption advocates have lamented the non-passage of the Freedom of Information bill and the non-release of Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth by public officials, among many other notable bills. We see a glimmer of hope in the Marcos Jr. administration as the digitalization of government transactions is made a priority. However, this has yet to pass.

In the fight against corruption, siloed efforts, and feelings of being the minority can lead to fatigue and ultimately, tolerance. 

What is the role of critical mass in all of this? Critical mass is primarily a majority of people with many different roles and perspectives but all moving forward towards one vision. Critical mass in the context of anti-corruption movements can have enough momentum to push for legislation in upending the status quo, ending reigns of terror in areas of high corrupt activity, and more importantly providing a multitude of voices on how best to sustain good governance. 
Critical mass goes beyond mass protests. It can be new and youthful politicians who do not tolerate corrupt activity, or civil society groups working to bring discussions of transparency and accountability to the public. It can include seasoned business leaders and groups who conduct businesses with integrity, or NGOs who educate students on values of integrity and honesty. It is the public, who will not agree to bribery on the streets or under-the-table transactions for the sake of faster transactions. Creating critical mass is a whole-of-society effort. 
Last December 7, key members of the government, civil society groups, the academe, think tanks, and members of the public came together as a show of solidarity under an event convened by the Stratbase ADR Institute in partnership with Democracy Watch Philippines in time for International Anti-Corruption Day, which is held annually today, December 9.

In this call for coalitions to come together, Department of Budget and Management Undersecretary Wilford Wong declared the current support of the administration towards anti-corruption efforts. He said that “the current administration is fully committed to attaining the level of transparency and accountability that our people deserve to further entice the people to participate in public governance as part of being a democratic country.”

Similarly, Jose Solomon Cortez of the Asian Institute of Management provided a concise view of how the problem of corruption must be seen and how it must be addressed: “Corruption is a crisis, and we should handle it like one. In the fight against corruption, we must employ the right kind of communication campaign to emphasize the magnitude of the problem that we are facing. This wicked problem can only be tackled through a collective collaboration of all sectors of society.”

This show of force is significant primarily at a time when there is a deep societal fatigue over allegations of corruption from one administration to another. Coalitions, network-building, and consolidated efforts that bring together people with the same vision are incredibly important in making sure that conversations do not end, and that the fight for good governance is sustained across time.

In understanding why critical mass and coalitions are necessary in our corruption-riddled society, Stratbase ADR Institute President Prof. Victor Andres Manhit in his speech summarized the recipe for a successful movement: “It is important to acknowledge that eradicating corruption requires collective effort, long-term commitment, and sustained efforts.”

Corruption is an enduring problem, one that we cannot attempt to remedy in just one generation, let alone one administration. Achieving critical mass is necessary and building coalitions of like-minded actors can help keep the hope of a society that does not tolerate corruption alive. 

May we collectively continue to act upon the governance that we Filipinos dream of as we celebrate International Anti-Corruption Day today.


Shanice Espiritu is the Policy and Regulatory Manager of Stratbase ADR Institute and Co-Convenor of Democracy Watch Philippines.

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