Corruption in the Philippines: Spanish Colonial Origins

Corruption in the Philippines: Spanish Colonial Origins

In his journal article published in 2007 in the Philippine Review of Economics, economist Robert H. Nelson argued that the corruption in the Philippines is a product of an acquired colonial identity that brought forth cultural attitudes and values that stood in the way of democratic principles.

He noted that corruption in the country resembles corruption in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. Furthermore, he also pointed out that the Philippines and most Latin American countries have similar historical and sociocultural identities characterized by the colonization of Spain and the introduction of Roman Catholicism.

Spanish Influence and Roman Catholicism as the Root Cause of Corruption in the Philippines

Nelson essentially argues that the Spanish and Catholic roots of the Philippines are the culprits behind the pervasiveness of corruption in the country. Of course, this argument is controversial, but it is also worth mentioning that observations from other scholars have either provided supplementary arguments or expressed similar observations.

For example, the study of Munyae M. Mulinge and Gwen N. Lesetedi explored the historical and cultural underpinning of corruption in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. They explained that during the colonial period, colonizers forced their subjects to do things against their will.

The longstanding domination and exploitation eventually created a behavioral predisposition leaning toward competition for survival and self-preservation.

Another study by Carlyn Dobson and Antonio Andres explained the colonial groundwork for corruption in Latin American countries. As noted, to maintain dominance, colonizers established institutions that restricted the natives from accessing properties, education, and political power.

The institutionalization of restrictions has become a norm in Latin America. Hence, when former colonies declared their independence, the corresponding leadership has maintained these institutions and restrictions as a means to maintain their power.

Aside from colonization, religious indoctrination has also played a role in creating and nurturing a culture characterized by abuse of power and irrational submission to authority.

A cross-national study by Daniel Riesman cited religion as a critical factor when determining the nature of corruption in a former European colony. To be specific, the study compared countries indoctrinated either under Roman Catholicism or Protestantism.

The study revealed that countries colonized by Protestants, particularly the former colonies of Britain, are usually less corrupt and more democratic than countries colonized by Spain and Portugal.

Treisman explained that unlike Roman Catholicism, Protestantism is less hierarchical and more egalitarian and individualistic. Furthermore, it does not emphasize familial loyalty in its religious teachings. Adherence to organizational hierarchy and close familial ties are common in politically corrupt societies.

In addition, Treisman explained that the legacy of British colonial rule has led to the adoption of the common law system. Scholars have noted that unlike the civil law system promoted in continental Europe and its colonies, the common law system provides the public with a defense against a government that might exert its power to regulate or take over their properties. Note that the civil law system is more government-oriented because it provides authorities with relevant powers needed to control the economy.


Spain has espoused a culture of suppression in its colonies, alongside the promotion of values from Roman Catholicism and the civil law system. Based on the argument of Nelson and the studies by other scholars, there is a reason to believe that one of the root causes of corruption in the Philippines can be traced back to its Spanish colonial past and Catholic heritage.

The Spanish colonial rule and Catholicism might have created cultural values and norms that created a society more predisposed toward corruption. These values and norms include self-preservation through power and abuse of authority, profound emphasis on hierarchy and social status, and familial values or close familial ties that promote nepotism.


  • Dobson, C. and Andres, A. 2011. Is Corruption Really Bad For Inequality? Evidence from Latin America.” The Journal of Development Studies, 47(7): 959-967. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2010.509784
  • Mulinge, M. M. and Lesetedi, G. 1998. “Interrogating Our Past: Colonialism and Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Journal of Political Science. 3(2): 15-28
  • Nelson, R. H. 2007. “The Philippine Economic Mystery.” The Philippine Review of Economies, 64(1): 1-32
  • Treisman, D. 2000. “The Causes of Corruption: A Cross-National Study.” Journal of Public Economics. 76(3): 399-457. DOI: 10.1016/S0047-2727(99)00092-4
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