In the last of a three-part series entitled PNoy’s Poverty Challenge, Malou Mangahas and Che de los Reyes writing for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism or PCIJ speak of PNoy’s Bold Blows vs Corruption, Cautious Steps vs Poverty. They are referring to his campaign slogan, kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap (which essentially presumes that corruption leads to, if not exacerbates, poverty, and that reducing corruption will help alleviate it).
They state that
while his first two months in office marked vigorous efforts to address the first part – filing suit against alleged tax evaders nearly weekly, creating a “Truth Commission” to hound crooks of the old regime, and firing midnight appointees of his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – he has announced only tentative and inchoate initiatives to address the second part.
Their basic complaint seems to be that PNoy is muddling through: failing to craft a narrative that builds on his presidential campaign–failing to communicate with the public his strategy for improving their plight, having been the first candidate since Erap to bring the poor under his tent. They argue that
(m)uch like Cory, Noynoy Aquino came to power backed by a company of similarly reform-minded if variously motivated political allies with consensus on general policy themes but not on concrete programs or policies.
There are really two things to say in response to this. One, the cases against tax evaders and the investigation of Mrs Arroyo are not really bold, new ideas, nor should they be considered the be-all and end-all of the anti-corruption campaign. Two, to expect some bold new initiative to target poverty to be rolled out on Day 1, makes light of how difficult it is to get a handle on this complex social phenomenon.
First, the revival of RATE (run after tax evaders) and RATS (run after smugglers) programs both originally conceived under Mrs Arroyo are more about improving enforcement and collection efficiency than about fighting corruption. The positive results of these initiatives witnessed during the early part of her administration is the main reason for their adoption by her successor. Also, as we saw under Mrs Arroyo, you can prosecute and jail a former president for plunder, but that does not necessarily mean that you have lowered corruption. The premise of the argument is flawed. These are not bold new initiatives. They have all been tried before at some point, in one form or another.
If in fact he took his slogan to be gospel truth, then PNoy should have prioritized law enforcement and anti-corruption in his first budget statement. The only thing remotely related to it that received mention was the ongoing computerization of the BIR. This is hardly what you may call “bold”. In fact, PNoy seemed to be taking the direct route to fighting poverty by assigning the largest spending increase in both absolute and percentage terms to DepEd and the DSWD respectively.
Second, poverty is a complex social phenomenon. When it comes to finding a solution to this “wicked” problem, we are practically flying blind in the dark. In fact, rather than engaging in bold new social experiments (like Mao’s Cultural Revolution, LBJ’s Fair Deal or Marcos’s New Society), we are actually much better-off conducting small scale experiments throughout the country based on different ideas, gathering evidence regarding the efficacy of each one and proceeding from there. Creating a tournament across various programs will filter out of the poor ones and strengthen the ones that remain.
Small, not Bold, is Beautiful
By taking small, incremental steps, the administration avoids many of the costly mistakes associated with big social experiments that are often attended to and defended with dogmatic or ideological zeal derived as they usually are from some cult of personality.
Most noticeable in its first budget is the manner with which the administration intends to scrap, scale up and scale down certain programs inherited from the Arroyo regime based not on political calculation, but on empirical evidence. In other words, based on a zero-based budgeting approach, it seeks to allocate resources to programs with the largest returns from a public value perspective as derived from proper monitoring and evaluation. This of course does not grab headlines, but neither can it be called “inchoate” or “tentative”.
Take the scrapping of the rice subsidy program.
The NFA has been managing these subsidies for decades. Despite volumes of evidence showing that it in fact does not achieve what it was originally designed to, it was supercharged and put on steroids under the previous administration. The re-channeling of funds away from it and the up-sizing of the conditional cash transfers (or CCT begun under Mrs Arroyo as the 4P’s) is again based on studies that reveal the efficacy of the CCT in the Philippines and elsewhere.
The scaling down or re-tooling of other programs such as Food for School and farm inputs (programs run by Mrs Arroyo) is again based on reports that point to their design flaws which may be corrected with proper management under the most relevant agency, the DSWD which has a national household income targeting system.
The capacity to depoliticize these programs by subjecting them to the rigors of empirical evaluation is actually a far better way to govern. Much as we would like to bash whoever resides in Malacanang, we should give credit where it is due. Now consider what would have happened had PNoy started from scratch with a bold, new social experiment and branded it with his initials like what previous presidents have done. If the program eventually failed, he would be hard put to scale it down. He would in fact be committed to perpetuating failure. A lot of public money has been wasted because of such “ownership” issues.
Thank God he has not succumbed to that!
P.S. Based on prior experience, what other programs do you think should the government probably scrap, scale down or supersize in the future?