October 2013

A preference for pork: The Philippine neopatrimonial state


Filipinos have a high tolerance for corruption, which they see as a necessary evil in the delivery of local programs and projects.

This is the only conclusion one can arrive at based on the results of Pulse Asia’s latest survey on the pork barrel, conducted during the last two weeks of September and released over the past fortnight (see part 1 here and part 2 here). For those who might have missed it, here is a quick round-up of results:

  • Awareness of PDAF or pork barrel was at 90%, up from 66% a decade ago.
  • Ability to identify a local project funded by PDAF over the past six years was only 39% nationwide down from 52% in 2004.
  • On what to do with the PDAF 45% were for its outright removal and for implementation to be left to line agencies, up from 30% a decade ago. The balance was split among those who wanted to keep PDAF in some shape or form, including 45% wanting some changes to the system to be made and 10% who don’t want any changes made at all.
  • On the use and management of PDAF about 8 out of every 10 Filipinos saw it as being undertaken for questionable motives such as electioneering, kickbacks and as inducements to support the executive’s legislative agenda.
  • On the proportion of PDAF going to corruption nearly 8 out of 10 Filipinos think that more than half of the pork allocation is being plundered.
  • On what legislators should prioritise in their work only about a third wanted them to focus on lawmaking, while 42% said they ought to focus on having projects and programs, i.e. pork barreling. The remainder was split between investigating scandals and other issues (14%) and reviewing and passing the budget (12%).
  • On the president’s handling of PDAF about two thirds believe that the misuse of pork has continued under his administration and the same amount approve of his handling of it (the Palace announced the suspension of PDAF but allowed congressional insertions or pork barrel projects in line agency budgets with more stringent requirements).

Despite a supermajority holding the view that PDAF is not being undertaken for its specified or intended use and that more than half of the money is being wasted or stolen, a plain majority are still in favour of keeping it in some shape or form. This explains the strong approval of the president’s actions in the wake of the PDAF scandal. Even among the educated, wealthier classes (ABC), where 9 out of 10 believe that half or more than half of the PDAF budget is being stolen, only 47% want pork abolished.

Support for the abolition of pork reaches a majority only in the NCR with 56% behind it. Mindanao is where support is weakest at 38%. The rest of the country hovers around the mean at 45-47%. There is little variability among classes ABC and D on the issue with 47-48% supporting abolition. It is Class E that diverges from the national mean at 38%. The median voter appears to sit somewhere in between the lower middle and poor classes of D and E.

Only about 38-39% of class D and E respondents could identify projects financed by PDAF in their community over the past six years, down from 53% a decade ago. There was hardly any change recorded for class ABC during this period with 46% indicating that they knew of such projects. People in Metro Manila were less conscious at 30%, down from 50%, and Mindanao had the highest level of awareness at 48% down from 60%. The rest of Luzon and the Vizayas hovered around the national mean at 37-38%, down from 51% and 54%, respectively.

Given the continued operation of PDAF, the lower levels of consciousness regarding projects benefiting the local community could be due to their being less conspicuous, which in turn could be because more money went to “soft” projects, that appear to be more prone to the “ghost” phenomenon. The suspicion that most of their pork goes to corruption has not deterred most Filipinos from supporting its retention.

PDAF was a way for the political elite to formalise their patrimonial activity by giving them access to public funds to distribute rents among their constituents, but it failed to address their need to finance campaign spending at elections and to provide an adequate level of compensation commensurate to the power and authority that they wield over the vast resources of government. As a result, it is no surprise that they did what they did.

Filipinos have always known and provided tacit approval for this. Just like traditional housewives from the 1950s who tolerated their spouses’ flings outside their marriage for so long as they were discreet about it and continued to be good providers of their households, the Filipino public was willing to accept a certain level of corruption by their padrino-politicians, for so long as they “brought home the bacon.”

Now that the game has been exposed, and the scale of their infidelity has been rubbed in their faces, the public has understandably become unsettled. But despite all this, what a majority of Filipinos still want is a return to the way things were. They appear half-hearted at best about doing away with a system of patronage that they believe has served them well.

Their inclination is to give it another chance, perhaps with some minor adjustments. Even if this means divorcing the set of politicos who have let them down and been found out, they would just as eagerly fall into the arms of another set who will offer them the same sort of pandering as the previous batch.

To be concluded…


How 8 Filipino soldiers are keeping China in check

Screenshot 2013-10-29 09.52.35

The New York Times published an amazing web-magazine over the weekend on how eight Filipino soldiers are keeping the Chinese in check in the South China Sea. The piece is brilliant, and captures the deplorable condition of our troops based in an old U.S. Navy ship.

Here’s a snippet:

China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived. “Nothing in China happens overnight,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said. “Any move you see was planned and prepared for years, if not more. So obviously this maritime issue is very important to China.”

It is also very important to the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) in Hanoi in July 2010. Clinton declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the United States, and that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” which could be taken to mean that China’s nine-dash line was illegitimate. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, chafed visibly, left the meeting for an hour and returned only to launch into a long, vituperative speech about the danger of cooperation with outside powers.

President Obama and his representatives have reiterated America’s interest in the region ever since. The Americans pointedly refuse to take sides in the sovereignty disputes. But China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the $5.3 trillion in global trade that transits the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of it touches U.S. ports — and so American foreign policy has begun to shift accordingly.

This is really something you should visit the New York Times to take the full experience.

Part 1: The Petilla Health Model

Philhealth today continues to face challenges that prevent the effective and efficient implementation of the National Health Insurance Program. As of 2012, only 84% of the population were enrolled in Philhealth , of which, only 6% were able to successfully receive claim reimbursements. Of the few beneficiaries who received the claim payments, only 19% are poor (presumably, as they are enrolled under the Sponsored Program), while the greater majority are employees from either government or the private sector.

As discussed last week, several reforms are being undertaken in Philhealth, including: recent amendments in the National Health Insurance Act to address flaws in the policy governing Philhealth; strengthening of the implementation of the No Balance Billing (NBB); adoption of the Case Rate System; and expansion of Philhealth benefits. Also, the passage of the Sin Tax Law further expands the company’s financial resources by earmarking the bulk of the additional proceeds from alcohol and tobacco taxes to Philhealth.

While these reforms are steps in the right direction, the opportunities for improvements to give public the capacity to maximize Philhealth benefits remain ample. In this endeavor, the role of local government units (LGUs) cannot be overemphasized.

Petilla Health Model
In the past, several LGUs adopted their respective innovations to maximize the use of Philhealth. Of the many notable practices, one worth discussing is the health model applied in Leyte under the leadership of then-governor Jericho Petilla.

Also known as the Petilla Health Model, the innovations in Leyte enabled the province to hurdle several age-old challenges in its local health system by tapping previously underutilized resources from Philhealth. Among others, these included the enhancement of government-owned hospitals, retention of doctors in public health facilities, and increased access to health services (especially among the poor).

Enhancement of health facilities
Access to Philhealth benefits first necessitates access to accredited facilities. This fact was recognized by Leyte’s LGU officials and authorities of Philhealth Region VIII. So to attain accreditation of more facilities, close coordination between the local officials from the provincial government and the regional Philhealth office was established. Together, they identified the needs and addressed the problems that hampered the development of the health facilities in the province.

Philhealth Region VIII aided the facilities to meet the minimum requirement for accreditation. Unnecessary stringency was lessened, and the procedures for accreditation were simplified. The paradigm shifted from facility enhancement as prerequisite to accreditation, into granting the accreditation first to enable the use of Philhealth capitation to afford the enhancement. This not only makes use of untapped Philhealth funds to improve the quality of health facilities but also increases the number of hospitals that will enable members to better access their entitled benefits.

Retention of doctors in public facilities
In a country where the number of health professionals remains inadequate, keeping doctors in public hospital means having to compete against the opportunities that the private sector has to offer. But doing this does not justify that other local basic suffer to finance the doctors’ competitive salaries. So how did the province of Leyte afford the salary increase of public doctors to an average of P180,000 monthly? The key was to use the underutilized funds from Philhealth.

As the number of accredited facilities increased in the province, more patients were able to avail themselves of the benefits from Philhealth. Subsequently, more resources from the company were channelled into government-owned hospitals, and a larger pool of income apportioned to government doctors.

Consequently, doctors were induced to stay in public facilities since working outside government-owned hospitals would result in higher foregone revenues. Better returns of rendering medical services also prompted the doctors to prioritize service provision over other options. Thus, by making service in public facilities an optimal choice for doctors, the availability of service providers expanded in the province.

Ultimately, the mechanism provided the public with better access to health services. (to be continued)

Ragos is a researcher of and a member of the Sin Tax Team of Action for Economic Reforms.

Gridlock or greed – a rejoinder

Randy David in his weekly op-ed column for the Inquirer wrote an entry called Between Gridlock and Greed. In it, he constructs a dichotomy between dysfunctional idealism and perverse pragmatism. He writes:

It is difficult to say which is preferable: a party-based politics that sometimes results in governmental gridlock, or a money-based politics that runs smoothly on pork barrel privileges.  America today illustrates the deep-rooted dysfunctions of the former, while the Philippines showcases the perverse pragmatism of the latter.

Prof David’s thesis is that although the gridlock of the US is the price that it has to pay for being a mature democracy, it is still preferable to our situation where the costs of greed in the form of bad policy exceeds the benefits it generates by way of smooth working relationships.

In my view this a false dichotomy. The opposition between gridlock versus greed is in my view not only flawed on the grounds that the United States is a poor example of the former, it is flawed because it assumes that greed or self-interest does not lead to gridlock.

The dysfunctional party-based politics Prof David refers to is the ongoing fight on Capitol Hill over what to do with the government’s fiscal debt and deficits. Tea Party conservatives who comprise the budget hawks, were unyielding to both Democrats and fellow Republicans and forced a temporary shutdown of services by the US government.

In the weeks leading up to the government shutdown, Speaker Boehner was put in an embarrassing position by this minority bloc. What occurred was a breakdown of party discipline, with recalcitrant members refusing to abide by the decision of their leaders. This does not just occur in the Republican Party alone–some members of the Democratic Party, the so-called “Reagan democrats” have on occasion crossed the aisle to side with their conservative counterparts on social issues like gun control.

If this is what Prof David meant by party-based politics, I am afraid that the example does not hold up well. Contrast that with party-based politics in the Westminster system, where there is strict adherence to platforms and positions within parties. Does such strict adherence to party discipline lead to gridlock?

I would use as an example the Gillard Labor government in Australia which was in power from 2010-13. It led a minority government, meaning the ruling the Labor party forged an agreement with the party of the Greens and a few independents to form government.

Some said that this would lead to gridlock. In fact the government of PM Julia Gillard has been shown to be the most productive, passing nearly all of its proposed bills including three budgets on time. I am afraid the problem is more nuanced and complex than the way Prof David poses it in his dichotomy.

The US example actually proves that greed can create gridlock. The wishy-washy Republican house leadership was due to Speaker Boehner wanting to keep his position. He was compelled to pander to the whims of the minority tea party caucus out of self-interest, which trumped the national interest.

In the Philippines, the spending program in the first semester of 2011 was not disbursed on time because the government was afraid that much of it would go to waste. For this reason, growth was held ransom to gridlock. If in the US one tenth of one percent of GDP is the projected cost of a temporary shutdown, in the Philippines, GDP halved from 7 to 3.5 per cent due to fiscal contraction. DAP was the solution, which pandered to self-interest and greed..

In Prof David’s analysis, there is a continuum from feudalism to modernity, and progress proceeds along a linear path from one end of the spectrum to the other. The Weberian state (named after Max Weber) is held up as the ideal against which all others must be measured.

Rather than a dichotomy, I would prefer a typology of development along the lines of Paul Hutchcroft, where you have state strength on one continuum and society’s prime motives on the other. The US is an example of a laissez-faire, regulatory state in which the state is weak compared to business groups whose prime motive is to seek profits under a rational-legal system. Gridlock as one conservative commentator George F Will points out, is not just a feature of its system, it is built in to it.

typology of states

The Philippines on the other hand is a patrimonial, booty capitalist state where the government is susceptible to capture by the elite, who operate on the basis of monopolistic rent capitalism and patronage. To complete this typology, we could consider China, Japan from the 1920s-70s, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, developmental states able to co-opt the business elite to serve their nation building agenda, as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, bureaucratic states able to withstand pressure from society, but relatively more patrimonial.

Rather than defining progress in terms of a linear path to modernity, I would rather we look at where the Philippines can position itself in the future. The problem is that there is hardly any leader or party at the moment who is thinking in these terms. They either operate on the basis of survival, or seek to shape the Philippines in the image of its former colonial masters in one go.

Often, reformers realise that because they can’t attain that lofty goal, it is better to use patronage to further their agenda. This is where David’s dilemma comes into play. Is it alright to keep that system of patronage in place, to use it for good, when the next government could undo whatever advances are made using that same system?

What is missing is a coherent plan and cohesive party which mobilises a constituency behind that agenda. If Philippine politics had this, it wouldn’t matter if some forms of patronage still remained in some quarters. They would be minimised by virtue of the fact that everyone was on board. The plan, the constituency and party discipline would keep them in check.


Pulse Asia: President Aquino gets higher trust rating amidst #PDAFscam

Screenshot 2013-10-23 20.42.19

Pulse Asia revealed that President Benigno S. Aquino III got an approval rating of 79% and a trust rating of 76%. Vice President Jejomar Binay received an approval rating of 77% with a trust rating of 74%. Pulse Asia says the margin of error is +/-3%.

The survey was taken between September 14 to 27, 2013. Among the things that happened during the period was Senator Jingoy Estrada’s privilege speech (September 25), flash flood in Zamboanga and Ilocos as well as the filing of tax evasion charges against Mrs. Napoles and her husband.

Screenshot, from Pulse Asia’s survey.

National Health Insurance: protecting the poor and the sick

“Social solidarity is about Filipinos caring for each other, it’s about the rich caring for the poor, it’s about the healthy caring for the sick…” – Former PhilHealth CEO Dr. Eduardo Banzon

Some supermodels pay a hefty insurance for body parts like their faces or their long flawless legs. Because they understand their importance to their modeling career, they ready themselves for the high costs of restoring (or losing, if the damage is irreparable) their beauty in case of accidents.

This concept of protection is generally the same with all insurance. More familiar examples, like car and life insurance, show that in essence, any insurance’s aim is to lessen the financial burden of a specific, unexpected future event.

PhilHealth or the National Health Insurance Program (NHIP), an insurance specifically for health, also aims to protect Filipinos from health shocks. While only a few are blessed with eye-pleasing bodily features like those of supermodels, basically everyone, regardless of age, gender, and socio economic background, has an overall health or well-being which is considered a source of productivity that needs to be protected. This is why every Filipino must be enrolled in Philhealth.

Therefore, the government’s mandate as embodied in the PhilHealth program is to create a safety net for all. The need for protection from health shocks is universal and its benefits are critical in restoring individuals’ health and productivity, which essentially are the nation’s wealth.

As PhilHealth is a social health insurance program, it aims to pool risks and resources so that the healthy can pay for the health care costs of the weak and the sick, and subsidize the health care needs of the poor. The larger the extent of risk pooling, the lesser the required premium contributions or the more comprehensive benefit packages will be.

The ideal healthcare situation is where everyone receives primary and preventive health care, and those who get sick can easily access health facilities and check out of the hospital paying the least amount, or at most, with no out-of-pocket expenditure.

To achieve this, PhilHealth is mandated to provide a financing mechanism that covers all Filipinos, matches benefit packages to patients’ needs, and optimizes the relative values of those benefits.

Main Challenges to PhilHealth
Undeniably, the NHI goals are genuinely for the good of the Filipino people. The next questions to ask would be: (1) how should NHIP influence the other players in the health system (especially in ensuring the quality of services of health care providers) and (2) how effectively is it doing its job?
Challenges in increasing the enrollment and coverage of members persist – only 51% of the Filipino population was covered in 2011 (Quimbo, et. al 2013). The lack of effective information dissemination, inadequate number of accessible accredited facilities, and limited menu of benefit packages also lead to underutilization of benefits – only 9 out of 100 Filipinos (9%) received full reimbursement from the program as of 2011 (Quimbo, et. al 2013). PhilHealth must also continue to improve its system of membership verification, claims processing, and transactions handling.

What’s New?

The poorest families’ use of PhilHealth often involve problems in enrollment, utilization and overall out-of-pocket health expenditures.

The compulsory premium contribution (currently an average annual payment of P1,200 and will soon increase to P2,400) is a huge burden for those from the lowest income quintiles. At present their enrollment is made possible through partial or full subsidies of the local and national government. For 2014, however, the national government is devoting about P35 billion (the bulk of which will be sourced from the additional revenues from the Sin Tax Law) to fully subsidize PhilHealth premiums of 14.7 million poor families under the National Household Targeting System-Poverty Reduction. With this, only the national government sponsors the poorest of the poor; the LGUs, can then focus on sponsoring barangay health workers, and nutrition scholars, managing and upgrading hospitals, or other health-promoting activities.

Recent amendments to the Nationl Health Insurance Act also include shifting the Sponsored Program from a system of decentralized identification of poor households (with efforts from the national and the local government units) to a centralized one where only the Department of Social Welfare and Development provides the official list by employing a means test. This aims to remove “politicking” where mayors, congressmen and women might have been wrongfully using the program as carrots to reward allies and favorites.

To address high out-of-pocket health expenditures, especially of the poor, initial steps of action involve strengthening the implementation of the No Balance Billing (NBB) and the Case Rates System. The NBB policy is expected to guarantee that the poorest will no longer have to shell out money after availing themselves of health services in public health facilities. Meanwhile, the Case Rates System, which pays a fixed amount for the treatment of a specific disease or case, partly ensures that health care providers have less incentive to recommend unnecessary procedures or branded medicines (when generic ones are equally fine) that increase patients’ overall costs.

PhilHealth’s other major plan starting this year includes the launch of a new benefit package: the Z MORPH (Z Benefits Rate for Mobility, Orthosis, Rehabilitation, Prosthesis Help), in aside from other special benefit packages that cover catastrophic diseases and outpatient services.

It’s “Social Solidarity”
Not every PhilHealth member gets to enjoy benefits equivalent to his or her premium contributions. Neither are members able to keep their money as ”personal savings” and get them as a lump-sum amount in the future.
But all these seem less important than PhilHealth’s main purpose: “social solidarity.” Paying for one’s monthly PhilHealth premium may have made you a few pesos poorer, but its worth is more than saving a model’s scratched skin. It could mean saving the life of a poor dengue-stricken child at present, or you in the future, when you face a similar life-threatening health condition.

Editor’s note: Aloria is a research assistant of Action for Economic Reforms.

Intellectual Property in the Internet Age

It’s really fascinating for someone like me that there is an ongoing debate on intellectual property, on the Internet age. Seems people from all spectrum of life is confused and think that everything on the Internet is “free”.

I believe this confusion stems from the very nature of the Internet and the hacker ethos that permeate from it. The hacker ethos is that all information should be “free”. What this means, is free access to information, “no secrets” mantra.

Fast forward to several years and something profound happened to copyright. It is called, copyleft and creative commons. It is a way to interface this hacker ethos, almost communal understanding of knowledge with concepts like property. It is also the profound difference between the Open Source movement and the Free Software movement. Both is “a matter of liberty, not price”

For example, Open Source is at its heart a methodology for software development. In simplistic terms, it can be viewed as “I own this source code intellectual property, but you are free to use read it, modify the code, add to the code so long as you cite me.”

In content terms, creative commons is the answer to “the problem” of wanton reuse of material. It merely says, Yes, I own this content— a photo, this blog post, music, an audio recording or whatnot but I give you the right to use it, to view it, to listen to it, to share it so long as you give me attribution. The last part is essential. There has to be attribution. There has to be I pass it along to you.

In the Philippine copyright context, is a brilliant piece of copyright legislation. Anything a Filipino does— this blog post for example is automatically copyrighted. A photographer automatically gets copyright for his photos. So as a content provider, I have to be explicit: this work is published under creative commons, you are free to share so long as you attribute back.

Now what happens to posts that I do share on Twitter for example? Are these photos in the “public domain” so anyone can simply grab and share?

Any user who signs up on twitter signs an agreement that basically tells twitter that they have a royalty free access to publish/distribute content. You are basically saying as price to use twitter as a service, you allow them to publish your content, but you keep ownership: “You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”

Retweeting is organic. In fact, quite useful. To prevent retweeting, you simply turn your profile private. So your content is only allowed to be view by certain people, and even those people cant’ retweet your content.

Now, what happens with a public post? Retweeting is fine and is covered under the agreement that you allow twitter to distribute, but what if your content gets republished elsewhere?

Under the Twitter terms, you retain ownership. Under Philippine copyright terms, you own content you create or publish. The easiest and least messy way is to ask the content owner for permission. Most people will agree to being republished. Quite recently, this blog was asked by GMA7 to republish some content, and we agreed readily, with the caveat of attribution. In many cases, so long as there is attribution, it is fine.

I know a lot of photographers for example whose photos are “stolen”. Images republished without attribution nor permission. Again, creative commons allow you to share with attribution because the owner has already provided you with permission to share because he or she licensed the work as creative commons. Sans creative commons, you have can not, and best to ask for permission. Most media entities cite tweets and photos: “This photo was taken from user blah blah blah”. In many cases those media entities would ask the person if they could use the content. It is better to ask, after all.

Here’s the rule of thumb: if you need to republish something away from sites like twitter, best to ask for permission. Never forget to attribute. And if someone asks you to take something down because they own that photo? Best to do it.

If people want pork, should we let them have it?

The jury is literally still out, but the poll results are in, and they look ominous for those who want to abolish pork.

As the Supreme Court deliberates on the legalities surrounding the Priority Development Assistance Fund, a people’s initiative was being organised to propose the scrapping of pork outright. The protest movement swiftly adopted the idea posed by an ex-Supreme Court Chief Justice, and began calling for volunteers to collect the required number of signatures to put their proposal to a referendum.

Meanwhile Pulse Asia released the results of a nationwide poll conducted from September 24-27. Apparently, despite 90 per cent of respondents saying they were aware of PDAF (up from 66 per cent a decade ago) with news of wholesale plunder of such funds allegedly funnelled to ghost NGOs percolating in the media, a clear majority or 55 per cent still want to retain pork as it is, or with stricter guidelines or in a diminished form. Only 45 per cent wanted to do away with the practice altogether.

This is unwelcome news for the Scrap Pork Network behind the Million People March. It means that they have their job cut out for them. Not only will they have to collect millions of signatures from a minimum of 10 per cent of registered voters nationwide and at least 3 per cent from each electoral district, in accordance with the law on people’s initiatives, they will now have to convince a large chunk of voters to change their mind and support their proposition. If the wretched conduct of congress over the PDAF scam has not convinced them to support the scrapping of pork, it is hard to imagine what will.

It is clear that in a country with a culture of patronage, people want their pork. The question now is whether we should let them have it.

From a strictly moral sense, some idealists might argue along the lines (to quote the scriptures) “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Applying this to the situation, if pork causes our politicians to steal, shouldn’t we cut it off from them? That’s the basic rationale of abolitionists.

It is clear that a majority of Filipinos don’t see things this way. For them, there might be competing moral standards at play. To use a passage from Joel Migdal’s book State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another:

What may be easily labeled as corruption or criminality, such as nepotism or smuggling, can also be looked at, for instance, as a morality favoring kinship ties over meritocracy or one expressing the right of movement of people and goods across the boundaries arbitrarily imposed by state law.

Given the deep-seated attitudes of Filipinos favoring the pork barrel system, and their penchant to rely on personal ties based on kinship to get the resources that they need and want at the local level, legislating new moral codes won’t necessarily lead to behaviour change.

What is needed is a more systemic way of dealing with the structural bottlenecks in government that allow politicians to use pork barrel as a way to address unmet needs in the community, at large, and profit from it along the way, both politically and economically. To use an analogy from the drug enforcement field, the only way to lower the people’s addiction to pork, would be to address both supply and demand channels. What are these channels and how do we address them?

Allow me to propose six ways to deal with the demand and supply of pork. These are outlined below:

Reducing the supply of pork

When talking about the supply of pork, I am talking about where pork comes from, or how it gets doled out. I am talking about the budget process, and how both congressional and presidential pork get inserted into the general appropriations or retro-fitted into national expenditure accounts. So the question here is, how do we reduce the supply of pork at its sources? The following measures should therefore be considered:

  1. Pass a Budget Impoundment Control Act (BICA). To prevent the president from impounding budget savings and using them for unauthorised expenditures.
  2. Invest all GOCC profits, including the proceeds of PCSO and PAGCOR into a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). To be governed by a board of directors and staffed with professional managers. The principal of the fund is to remain untouched, and only returns from investing it in safe, risk free assets are to be used for development purposes. This is to prevent profits from being used for political purposes. Incidentally, this is how the Malampaya Fund should operate as well.
  3. Pass Freedom of Information (FOI) and Whistleblower Protection (WBP) legislation. This would allow the sunshine principle to come into play that would increase the likelihood of scams to be caught and reduce the risk of pork abuse by legislators and the president.

Reducing the demand for pork

It is not sufficient to reduce the supply of pork, we also need to address the needs of the people in a more systemic way, to lessen their dependence on pork. As a start to this exercise, we need to ask, what were the most common uses and abuses of pork in the past? We have seen that the most abused element of pork has been the ‘soft’ projects, consisting of services such as livelihood training, medical kits and agricultural aid, as opposed to the ‘hard’ projects which are attended to by the government’s public works department. The following are some remedies to the demand for “soft” pork:

  1. Use the earnings from the Sovereign Wealth Fund (no. 2 above) to:
    • provide scholarships and income contingent loans to tertiary students and out of school youths. This would eliminate the need for congressmen and senators to fund scholarships through pork
    • invest in the Philippine Health Insurance Fund. This would support universal healthcare for indigent patients.
    • invest in social welfare projects. To expand the coverage of the conditional cash transfers and other community based projects.
    • invest in agriculture and agrarian reform projects. To fund the CARPeR and modernisation of our agricultural sector.
  2. Adopt recommendations by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies endorsed by the Leagues of Provincial Governors and Mayors to reform the Local Government Code to allow LGUs to raise revenues on their own by about an estimated third of their existing funds reducing their dependence on internal revenue allotments from the national government and on congress for aid. This will allow local governments to have fiscal capacity to address local needs.
  3. Provide state funds to political parties. To lower the demand for pork from politicians who need it to get re-elected.

If we could pass these measures, their combined effect would be to channel more resources to systemic and programmatic approaches to tackle poverty and underdevelopment and have less resources available for patronage based approaches. This is not to say that pork will be legislated out of existence, but what it will do is lower the incentives in the system that drive it. There will be less avenues for patronage and better safeguards to limit the abuse of privilege.

I know this is not the policy solution that abolitionists want. They would rather have what seems to be a more direct route to their goal. The problem is that by seeking to legislate against certain behaviour, without addressing the incentive matrix that fosters it, they are really conjuring up a whole heap of unintended consequences. Illicit drugs do not disappear simply because we have made them illegal, or because we catch a few drug dealers and send them to prison.

Rather than expending all that effort in finding a silver bullet through a people’s initiative, the reform movement should actually be putting its weight behind a reform agenda that would wean both patrons and clients off of pork, so that they may find healthier ways of conducting their business. The answer to the question, should we let the people have pork, if that is what they want, ultimately lies in changing the tastes and habits of both the public and those in power, through shoves and nudges rather than mandating them to change their “wayward ways”.

The Post-PNoy era

A Broad Tent
A big tent?
The Million People March at Ayala called for unity in diversity, but did it achieve this goal?

The election of a genuinely pro-reform candidate like President Aquino or PNoy in 2010 happens only once in a generation. Dissatisfied with anything that falls short of their ideal, some are now calling for an end to his presidency, but others are more conscious of the fact that time is running out to enact bold reform before he steps down.

Mortality has a funny way of focusing the mind. Whether it be the end of one’s life or term of office, contemplating one’s demise allows us to transcend the present day-to-day battles, take stock of the remaining time we have left, and attend to doing the things that we want to be remembered for after we are gone.

So it goes for the budding reform movement that first catapulted President Aquino into the presidency and has now morphed into a cause to abolish the pork barrel system. The fast-approaching conclusion of PNoy’s presidency, less than three years away, and the uncertain fate of his reform program, has put into sharp focus the need to double up efforts and ensure that enough protections are in place to keep whoever succeeds him on the straight and narrow path.

Recent revelations of anomalies in the administration’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) have reminded citizens of the possibility for abuse that still exists when you combine congressional earmarks with executive privilege in the budget process. The supposed unconstitutionality of such a program has wedged supporters of the cause on the issue of whether to turn on President Aquino who takes full responsibility for authorising the DAP.

While it was easier to make that leap under the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, especially after the Hello Garci incident, when the reform movement abandoned her, the personification of evil has not yet reached the same fever pitch under President Aquino. Internecine conflict has broken out in the wake of the [email protected] rally on 4 October which attracted far fewer numbers than the August 26 Luneta rally. The warring factions are making two competing claims:

  • One side claims that the protest action was “hijacked” by anti-PNoy groups, incited by the opposition, whose senators are being investigated for fraud in relation to the original pork barrel scam. They view calls for the president to resign or be impeached as a distraction to the ongoing investigation into congressional abuse of pork.
  • The other side maintains that PNoy’s supporters are seeking to weaken or undermine their cause to protect the president from prosecution.

It is a classic case of purists vs pragmatists. The purist/idealist camp (anti-PNoy supporters) seeks nothing short of absolute adherence to its core principles of prosecuting all those involved in pork (which includes DAP), while the pragmatists/realist camp (pro-PNoy supporters) see that such adherence, although desirable is not practical, and possibly counter-productive, at this stage.

The debate has quickly descended into an uncivilised tone with pejorative name-calling serving only to weaken the overall reputation and efficacy of the movement. A silent majority consisting of pro-reform supporters are perhaps willing to suspend judgement and cut the president some slack. They probably shied away from Friday’s mass action for fear of being lumped together with anti-PNoy protesters.

This split in the reform movement was something that the [email protected] organisers, the Scrap Pork network had hoped to avoid with their pronouncements on unity prior to the rally. Now that the two camps are in open conflict with each other does not bode well for the movement. That is of course unless it is able to quickly pivot towards forming an agenda for change that goes beyond mere slogans.

The reform constituency needs to be broad enough to encompass both pro- and anti-PNoy supporters. This can be achieved by focusing on policy goals rather than personality-centred partisanship. Just as the RH campaign brought disparate groups together around a common policy theme, the reform movement needs to coalesce around a set of policies to push for as PNoy’s presidency comes to a close, and beyond.

How can we do that?

The problem faced by ordinary citizens who compete with very powerful vested interests in waging a campaign to affect public policy was first posed by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action. The book in a way tries to answer the question why special interests are better able to capture state regulators and policymakers, as well as fund slick media campaigns to influence public opinion, than ordinary citizens who outnumber them.

The fact that the benefits of collective action are shared by the public at large, while the cost is borne by a select few, gives rise to the free rider problem where people wait for the first movers to bear the cost of organising before jumping in. Special interest groups don’t suffer from this, since the incidence of costs and benefits falls on a concentrated group of players. The logic of collective action eventually results in what economists call the tragedy of the commons where policies that serve the public interest are disproportionately underrepresented.

In the face of very powerful and concentrated interests which would want to stall and roll-back the reform process, how can the diffuse, inchoate masses that comprise the reform constituency mobilise support for a reform agenda? A new book Strength in Numbers by Gunnar Trumbull which challenges Olson’s thesis might hold a clue. The following is how Jonathan Rauch from the American Enterprise Institute summarised the key insights from the book

In fact, weak, diffuse groups have a paradoxical political advantage: precisely because they are weak and diffuse, the public sees them as less self-interested and thus comparatively trustworthy. Second, Olson also underestimates the power of ideological motivation, rather than just money and concentration, to spur activism. Third, “diffuse interests can be represented without mobilization,” thanks to activism by politicians and government officials who take up their cause. (FDR started a federal pension program at a time when “retirees,” as a self-identified social class, did not yet exist. The program created the constituency, rather than the other way around.) Fourth, weak or diffuse interests can link up with concentrated groups to amplify their effectiveness, as when consumers align with exporters to oppose trade protections or when free-speech advocates join with political parties to oppose campaign-finance limits.

A number of past cases in the Philippines would in fact fit well with the Strength in Numbers hypothesis. Legislation supporting clean air, cheap medicine and reproductive health were passed in the face of stiff opposition from very powerful business and special interest groups in society. Why? Because they had a combination of factors working in their favour: a champion in Congress, a constituency rallying behind it, motivated at times by an ideology or simply altruistic motives.

David Bollier, co-editor of the book The Wealth of the Commons, suggests that the internet has significantly reduced the costs of organising common people behind collective action. The following is how Bollier put it

In our times … (t)he rise of the World Wide Web since 1994 — and since then social networking, wikis, and countless other innovations — has made it ridiculously easy for people to find each other and organize to publicly advance their shared interests. That’s one reason that the commons is so robust today – the coordination and communication barriers among people have virtually disappeared in online spaces.

The strength of the MPM/Scrap Pork network is the fact that it is seen as a neutral group, less interested in the personalities of partisan politics. Its ability to organise mass actions through social media in the middle of a work day is gold. All this infighting simply undermines that and makes it appear that there are hidden operators with their own agenda trying to sway the cause one way or another. The fact that the network has hewn strictly towards the middle between pro- and anti-PNoy activists, in their pronouncements at least, was a good outcome.

To spur this movement forward requires us to harness all the energy and ideas of its constituents towards a reform agenda. To simply chant slogans is not enough. What we need are practical policy tools that would make the scrapping of pork, the accounting of public funds, and the prosecution of the corrupt a lot easier regardless of who sits in Malacañang or the Batasan.

We can either swim against the tide or make the tide shift in our favour through structural reforms. It is not a distraction to focus the conversation on policy reforms that could be adopted over the coming years, when all these investigations and prosecutions of pork cases will unfold. As the cases of alleged corruption are investigated and cases filed, there will be cause to mount protest actions to carry them to their logical conclusions.

The problem is if we think that removing pork from the diet of congress and the president, and punishing a number of senior elected and appointed officials will solve the problem of corruption in high places, we would be seriously mistaken. A lot of off-budget transactions have taken place in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. Wily and entrepreneurial backroom operators such as Janet Napoles will always find a way of conducting shady deals when the public are looking away.

The incentive to cheat under our current system is simply too great because whoever is in power has the ability to maneuver using off-budget transactions. It is time that groups like MPM and Scrap Pork take their advocacy to a whole new level by taking advantage of the free space afforded by the digital commons to make their case for far-sighted reforms to address them. This might involve:

  • sponsoring and curating a combination of online forums where various experts put forth their ideas for policy change through discussion papers or presentations and where viewers participate by posting questions, comments and suggestions.
  • seeking champions for their cause in Congress or the administration to adopt their draft bills and proposals.
  • organising mass actions through social media during important dates when proposals are deliberated and voted on in Congress. The case of the Magna Carta of the Philippines for Internet Freedom could be used as a template to push for a number of reform measures.

Finally, if the reform constituency remains intact, and succeeds in pushing not only for administrative reforms through executive action, but political reforms through changes in law that would make it easier for reform-minded politicians to advance in our democratic system, then they will guarantee a better and brighter future for all of us as we move into the post-PNoy era.

Note: The hashtag #postPNoy has been started by the author on Twitter to foster a conversation on concrete reform proposals.  Anyone can participate in this discussion by following it and posting comments and suggestions.