Heading into the Easter break, the president makes a pitch for his own version of the reproductive health bill. Could this be his way of making penance with the pro-RH cause for the sin of omitting their bill from his legislative priorities?
With his poll numbers slipping, the president has sought to present himself as being more pro-active in leading from the front rather than taking a hands-off approach on a number of issues. With respect to the impeachment trial of the ombudsman, we have seen him make pronouncements regarding the need to convict Ms Merceditas Gutierrez an appointee of and proxy for the former president Gloria Arroyo whose following in the house of representatives, President Aquino sees as a stumbling block for his social reform policies. These policies involve the winding down of the grains subsidy program and the scaling up of the conditional cash transfers (CCT) program.
Mrs Arroyo challenged the president’s priorities and questioned the government’s capacity to absorb the growth of the CCT a while back. Was she speaking from experience? When her government increased the budgets for agricultural inputs and micro-lending via the now derided fertilizer fund and the now financially troubled Quedancor, such questions were not raised by her. It is for failing to prevent such catastrophic policy blunders that the current president wants the ombudsman to run after officials of the former one.
Regarding the CCT program expansion itself, two things can be said:
- First, when it comes to dispensing money as opposed to physical goods like fertilizer to farmers and grains to needy groups or acting like a financial intermediary in assessing loan worthiness of hog raisers, the infrastructure required and scope for possible leakage is much smaller. So scaling up the CCT is less prone to problems of corruption and wastage as the fertilizer and rice subsidy or micro-lending and swine programs were,
- Second, when it comes to deciding what to spend on for poverty alleviation, the poor households through the women folk are best placed to make these decisions rather than any government bureaucrat. So giving cash directly to households through the existing banking infrastructure proves to be much more effective and efficient in terms of producing the kind of outcomes needed.
Now coming to the ultimate social reform policy (I say ultimate since it affects much of the MDG targets either directly or indirectly), the president choosing his audience wisely made an impassioned plea before graduating scholars of the country’s premier state university to be heard amid the ongoing rancorous debate over the RH Bill. His own proposal the RP Bill (responsible parenthood bill) differs from the former in that it envisions separate government run health centers to provide natural family planning counseling services as distinct from modern ones. At present the current RH Bill would have all the different forms of family planning services provided under one roof.
This he says was his way of making concessions to the Catholic clergy who suspended talks with him after the RH Bill got introduced into the plenary debate in Congress. The question is, does the amendment proposed by the president help secure more votes for the bill or not? Judging from the comments made on both sides of the debate, the answer is probably no. Many on the pro-RH side would see it as just a waste of funds. What would be the advantage of separating the providers of service? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have provision consolidated?, would be their main points against it. Those on the anti-RH side would still find objectionable the fact that the government will be promoting other forms of family planning that they deem immoral.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak
So what benefit would introducing this new version of the bill bring? For those who have been advocating and waiting for it, this belated proposal would only threaten the passage of the current one making its way through the legislative grind. Such a proposal would be useful as a possible revision after the bill is enacted into law, if and only if it was found that consolidation produced unwanted and unforeseen consequences. Perhaps the only benefit is for the president himself, i.e. to justify his reasons for not prioritizing the RH Bill on the one hand, while claiming to be in principle behind it on the other. Splitting hairs, one might say, or quibbling over the details.
This hardly makes for decisive leadership. On the other hand, at least the president is saying he is with the RH cause in principle. Or in the spirit of the season, he would be saying that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And that in essence is what this whole debate may be all about.