November 2013

Manny Pacquiao and Kim Henares

Fresh off his latest boxing conquest, Manny Pacquiao came home to face another challenger: Bureau of Internal Revenue Chief Kim Henares. The Bureau of Internal Revenue says Pacquiao owes 2.2 billion pesos in taxes. Pacquiao says he paid taxes, and even gave the B.I.R. a copy of the taxes he paid in the U.S.

Much has been said, quite naturally on social media. Here are two of the sane ones:

The gist of what many saying is to lay off Pacquiao. Nothing of course can take the man’s achievements. He is also humble in victory, and in defeat. In many ways the Pacquiao story is something to achieve for. The man’s life from zero to billionaire is an extraordinary success story. And in the ring he has without a doubt united a nation, even if for only 12 rounds of boxing.

That is something.

Who likes a tax collector? Kim Henares of course is known for her zealous approach to collecting taxes. While we can argue with the B.I.R.’s success rate, and quibble at whether or not fear and intimidation are the best tools for this sort of thing, we can not doubt too her sincerity. We can even complain at how bad the system still is.

Personally, I find it reprehensible to burn unused receipts from last year; the environment and all that. It makes sense for me to pay the printer for receipts when they almost run out, not before they run out, for example. The alternative of course is a PHP50,000 peso fine, which of course none of us want to be victims– err— find ourselves in that position!

Going back to Manny Pacquiao— the B.I.R. going after his taxes and auditing them isn’t an aberration. It’s their job. Just because he is a hero, doesn’t mean he gets to go free in paying his taxes or is more protected than ordinary citizens.

Wasn’t this why we got into the whole mess that is PDAF? That rules aren’t followed? Isn’t that why there is a prevalence of corruption? Isn’t that why there are traffic jams? Isn’t that why the President instituted a no wang-wang policy on day one?

Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao is a hero of the people. Being a hero doesn’t mean it is an excuse not to follow the law— or any rule of the land. Change is hard and by the look of it— ordinary people are still making the transition to this new world order. Pacquiao can afford to hire lawyers to see to his case. Kim Henares could be right or wrong. If Pacquiao is innocent, that’s great! If he or some of his staff failed to do their duty? Then the law is clear on that isn’t it?

Dispatches: Four Years On, No Justice for Maguindanao Massacre Victims

The threat was unambiguous. If Bong Andal testified against one of the Philippines’ most powerfulpolitical families about their alleged involvement in the November 23, 2009 massacre on the southern island of Mindanao, his family would suffer. “They came again last month, showing our pictures to my relatives, letting them know that they’re watching us,” Andal told me by phone this week.

Those threats – and the Philippine government’s inability or unwillingness to stop them – speak volumes about the glacial pace of judicial proceedings against alleged perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre, in which the Ampatuan family’s “private army” murdered 58 people. Four years after the bodies of the victims were located off of a highway outside of the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, the massacre remains a shameful exemplar of impunity in the Philippines.

The basic facts of the case are undisputed. Armed men paid by the Ampatuan family, including local police and soldiers, stopped a convoy that included the wife of opposition politician Esmael Mangudadatu, his supporters and family members, and more than 30 media workers.

Mangudadatu had sent them to file his candidacy for provincial governor in elections scheduled for the following year.

The gunmen herded everyone in the convoy to a hilltop a few miles away and promptly executed them. Many were buried in mass graves excavated by a backhoe operated by Bong Andal. In his statements to prosecutors, Andal said he witnessed members of the Ampatuan militia shoot several of the victims. The crime was the worst single attack against members of the media in history and one of the Philippines’ worst single incidents of political violence.

Four years later, the case is in effective judicial limbo. A total of 94 suspects remain at large. Bail petitions and testimony challenges by the defense lawyers of the 101 suspects in custody have overwhelmed the court.

But the problem of the Maguindanao massacre case is more than a failure of judicial process. It is about whether those threatening Bong Andal rather than the authorities control the proceedings. It’s a cruel reminder to activists, journalists, and politicians critical of the status quo that they too might be targeted with impunity. The human rights rhetoric of the government of President Benigno Aquino III has not transformed the dangerous reality on the ground. As Aquino enters the last half of his six-year term in office, he should recognize that he will be ultimately judged by his actions, not his words.

Republished with permission from Carlos H. Conde


My colleague Manuel Buencamino calls it the biggest reconstruction project in the Philippines after World War II. President Noy Aquino (PNoy) calls it a “comprehensive rehabilitation program.”

Typhoon Yolanda has brought incalculable, terrible costs. Two weeks after the most powerful storm in more than a century ripped central Philippines, more than 5200 people have died, more than a thousand are still missing, and scores of thousands are recuperating from physical injury and emotional trauma.

The calculation of economic losses brought about by Typhoon Yolanda’s devastation varies widely. The International Business Times (UK edition) provides some information on the economic impact:

CEDIM Forensic Disaster, based in Germany estimates that losses will range between US$8 billion and US$19 billion.
Another group, Kinetic Analysis Corp. places the economic costs at between US12 billion and US15 billion.
Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan estimates that the reconstruction costs can reach US$5.8 billion.

In short, the amount for rehabilitation is staggering. But as I will explain later, the resources can be mobilized without necessarily overburdening the economy. The important point is this: The rehabilitation program is an opportunity to lay the foundation for post-Yolanda all-round, sustainable development.

In this context of recovering from the devastation brought about by the super typhoon, we can apply loosely (even literally!) Joseph Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction.” Yolanda destroyed the old, and it is up to us as a people, not only the policymakers, to create a new one. We hope that what we rebuild, to quote Schumpeter again, will “revolutionize the economic structure” and bring in “the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization.”

The PNoy administration has created a “task group” for the comprehensive rehabilitation program, composed of Cabinet members and coordinated by Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla. The priority programs consist of shelter and reconstruction, power restoration, livelihood and employment, resettlement and psychosocial care, environmental protection, and resource generation and allocation. In the same vein, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) is tasked to prepare a unified plan, which will integrate the rehabilitation programs and projects of different agencies.

From the description above, we can observe that the “task group” is basically made up of the whole Cabinet. That is, the Aquino administration for the remainder of its term will focus its energy and attention on the post-disaster program.

The administration has correctly identified the core programs. Of course. they are general categories that are part of any template on recovery and rehabilitation. And any program cannot offer sure-fire solutions,

Allow me, nonetheless, to identify and emphasize some areas, which are essential for the success of the rehabilitation plan.

First, the plan is an opportunity not only to rehabilitate and rebuild the provinces that were hard hit by Typhoon Yolanda. The reconstruction plan must be a national one. To repeat, now is the moment to “revolutionize the economic structure.”

In addition, tens of thousands of victims have left their homes and have become internal refugees, evacuating to urban centers to start life all over again. This suggests that the scope of the plan cannot be limited to the damaged areas.

In another area, the restoration of power is not a quick fix. The power shortage extends to many parts of the archipelago. Further, we cannot discount a national energy crisis in the medium term. This entails hard decisions that will address the market failure in the energy sector.

Second, jobs have to be created. In the near term, giving cash to victims to do relief and rehabilitation work is a good step. The massive infrastructure rebuilding will also result in creating jobs, skilled and unskilled. But why stop there? After all, the administration is committed to inclusive growth, in which the creation of quality jobs is the cornerstone.

Third, employment generation—creating jobs of higher productivity and expanding the number of wage-workers—is linked to industrial and technology policy. The government through the Department of Trade and Industry has a program on expanding and diversifying manufacturing through new forms of industrial policy. This program, however, remains low key. It is high time we placed prominently on the national agenda industrial and technology policy, which is tied to job creation. In this regard, we welcome the technical assistance of multilateral organizations and donor countries,especially those in East Asia, towards doing industrial policy right.

Fourth, industrial and technology policy has new substance and forms. It is not just about picking winners; it is also about putting in place the disciplining mechanisms to prevent abuse of discretion. It is also about collaboration between government and the private sector to jointly diagnose problems, coordinate actions, and discover new ways of doing things.

Moreover, industrial and technology policy must adapt to an unfortunate reality in the Philippines—that we will continue facing horrible natural disasters. In this sense, developing local green technology to address disaster reduction and management and climate change can be the lynchpin of such policy. The advantages of indigenous green technology include its labor intensiveness and its dynamic comparative advantage (given that the technology is relatively new, even to advanced countries).

Last but not least, the rehabilitation plan will obviously entail huge resources. This can strain the government’s fiscal capacity, but this problem is not a binding one. The Department of Finance and the Bureau of Internal Revenue have performed well in steadily increasing the tax effort. The combination of Kim Henares’s tax administration reforms and the passage of the sin tax reforms symbolizes confidence in government’s revenue performance.

To be sure, more revenue measures have to be put in place, all the more made pronounced by the expenditure demand for rehabilitation. It is thus an imperative for Congress to pass the bill on reforming mineral taxation and another bill on rationalizing fiscal incentives. On top of this, depending on PNoy’s political capital, he may ask Congress to reform the specific tax on petroleum, which has been eroded through the years because of non-aadjustment to inflation.

Notwithstanding the increase in tax effort and the proposed tax reforms, government cannot avoid borrowing to finance the rehabilitation program. A word of caution though: It is better to borrow domestically than externally. A heavy inflow of foreign loans leads to a currency appreciation, which in turn weakens the real sector and thereby undermines the goal of inclusive growth.

We have heard it many times, but it has been recently articulated by Kim Henares, that slow development in the Philippines is attributed to our weak sense of nationhood. Typhoon Yolanda has moved the Filipinos, rich and poor, to act as one. Let us seize this moment to sustain national action. Let us turn disasters like Yolanda into a “gale of creative destruction.”

What ought to be

Some of us are dismayed over the behavior of blaming and bitching government for the slow, disorganized, or powerless response to the Typhoon Yolanda devastation.

Here’s a sample of Facebook comments that I liked:

Please, if you are not doing anything to help, just shut up. We are all hurting, especially those in the affected areas. Let us unite in helping in any way we can. Criticizing, spreading false stories, predicting failure and all that negative stuff have got to stop.
I hope all those know-it-all critics of the typhoon relief efforts sit down together and produce a magic master plan for the survivors. I’ve been waiting days for them to stop bitching and to come up with an alternative to what the government is doing.
The damage from Yolanda is incalculable. The worst is psychical. The aftermath has made bitching a national pastime.

Don’t get me or us wrong.

First, everyone is not faultless. Even PNoy.  Recall that he criticized the local government of Tacloban, expressing doubts over its preparedness. In times of great distress and disaster, emotional outbursts are difficult to control.  In fact, they are better released.

Second, criticisms are necessary. Government is not omniscient. Criticisms make government awake and responsive.

But the type of criticism we have to avoid is one that weakens the collective effort to provide relief and rehabilitation to the suffering millions.

Some criticisms or complaints stem from the thinking of what ought to be. Government must or should do this or do that.  Dapat ganito, dapat ganyan.

What ought to be is the best situation; it is the ideal.  But the ideal is not the real world. We face too many constraints to achieve our objectives. Apply this to the response to the devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda:  The information and logistics failure overwhelm the people on the ground. Without information, infrastructure, and logistics, we can expect chaos.

Thus, attributing the absence of government’s presence as a cause of the worsening situation is misplaced. Government’s invisibility in some areas is but the effect of an objective problem—information and infrastructure facilities having been knocked off, leading to inefficiency and miscoordination.

It is also true that in remote areas, government cannot be found. But this has been the case since time immemorial. It is thus a constraint in the context of the ongoing relief and rehabilitation.

Another example of the “what-ought-to-be syndrome” is the tendency of some, particularly the foreign commentators, to compare the Philippines’ poor response to that of advanced countries like Japan. In other words, we ought to be doing what Japan is doing. Again, that is the ideal, but far from real. How can we become a Japan that soon?

This reminds me of the weakness of the most incisive analysis of Douglass North on the role of institutions, which earned him the Nobel laureate. North and his colleagues distinguish between countries (developing ones) that have limit access orders—characterized by corruption, rent-seeking and oligarchic rule—and countries (the advanced market economies) that have open access orders.  So what ought to be for developing countries is to achieve open access orders. But North et al. so far cannot provide the concrete answers how to get there.

When next time, we say government must do this and must do that, we better exercise prudence and caution. Let us be sensitive to the constraints. Let us also acknowledge our own constraint that we ourselves do not have enough information that will be the basis of the most appropriate response.

But below is one example where our commentary can be most helpful to the relief and rehabilitation effort.  Note that the writer EJ Galang, a young, internationally awarded creative professional, avoids saying we must do this or must do that.

To my friends in government, I know it’s a tall order, but can we expect a transparency report, an accounting of the donations that are meant for relief. I know it’s a hard task but this recent expose made the people lose its confidence on how the government keeps track of the people’s money. It will do the government good if you can restore a little bit of that trust.

Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

(This has been cross-posted from Random Salt.)

A “Mediated” Catastrophe


In the wake of the strongest storm on record to make landfall, Filipinos had found all telecommunications cut off and basic infrastructure levelled. No information from the affected regions was readily available in the immediate aftermath of typhoon Haiyan.

Then from satellites orbiting the earth and from previously stranded news crews on the ground in Leyte, first a trickle, then a deluge of reports came pouring in. The images they showed and the stories they told gave people from all over the nation and the world an overall picture of the gravity of the event that had just occurred. Scenes of utter devastation and loss were beamed straight into our living rooms.

From there the narrative evolved. The coverage initially focused on the impact of the storm on the people, their property and the place itself. Arriving at an accurate picture of the scale and severity of the damage was difficult at first. Estimates were compiled, reported, misreported, corrected, and updated.

First it was 1,200 dead, then it was scaled up to 10,000. Then it was adjusted back down to 2,300, before rising to 3,600 and then to 4,500. The rubberiness of these figures themselves proved how desperate the situation had become. Expressions of sympathy along with pledges of support began flooding in from all over the world. Social media started to buzz with the same. About 10 million have been directly affected by the storm. 

From there, the media trained its microphones and lenses at the response to the emergency by the state, international donor community and civil society, and on how adequate/poor, efficient/slow, effective/haphazard it was. Statements made by the president and other public and community leaders prior to, during and after the event were analysed, evaluated and subjected to commentary, with varying degrees of slant, depending on who was doing it.

By Day 5 criticism over the absence or slow rate of response began to build. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, a veteran anchor and host of the show AC360 himself became part of the story when he began to offer his own personal opinions regarding the government’s actions since the storm hit. Having just arrived “on the scene” in Tacloban, he wondered out loud where the resources of the state were being deployed if at all. From his vantage point, there did not seem to be a presence.

He of course was speaking as a field reporter, travelling on foot and surveying what was in his vicinity. He was lambasted by a local news anchor, Korina Sanchez, for providing inaccurate information. She had a personal interest as her husband is the head of the interior and local government department. Sec Mar Roxas later appeared on CNN with Andrew Stevens explaining the logistics of aid, defending the government’s position, providing a macro picture of what the government had done and was continuing to do across the central islands and hundreds of municipalities affected.

The contrasting positions of official government representatives who were dealing with the crisis from the war room (which took a non-journalist in the person of Solita Monsod to document), as opposed to news reporters who were sampling local issues using partial, anecdotal evidence was not appreciated by the public, at large. Reality was being mediated by camera crews who were capturing conditions in specific locations without necessarily contextualising them.

This mediation of reality could be distorted without that broader awareness of what was happening in other places and behind the scenes. Social media began to reflect and magnify this somewhat slanted view. Memes began to pop up and multiply. The most common was the “nobody is in charge” one, particularly as reports of looting, stampeding, and shooting began to float around. By “catastrophising” the situation, the flow of aid may have unintentionally been slowed, as one Time magazine journalist observed.

It swamped stories of resilience, communities coming together, people pitching in, and successful operations elsewhere. The big picture was unavailable, only momentary media clips that could fit into bite-sized reporting, useful to the 24/7 news cycle. Rumours over a possible “state of emergency” or “martial law” began to fill the airwaves heightening that sense of insecurity and utter chaos, without necessarily being representative of the true situation.

The officials who claimed that conditions were well under control like President Aquino did with Christiane Amanpour or UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos were branded as out of touch, aloof, uncaring. That is the other meme: the uncaring bureaucrat or arrogant, self-serving politician. The commentariat began to vilify them for their inaction, for failing to plan, control or respond quickly enough. They did so without taking into account the extreme nature of the event.

Compared to similar “Black Swans” that have occurred, like Hurricane Katrina, the Boxing Day tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake, the timeline of Typhoon Haiyan looked a lot similar. People are appalled by the seeming inaction, but they fail to take into account the length of time it takes to ship goods, materiel and forces into a devastated location. While media people can be airlifted in, the bulk of relief goods have to travel by sea or land. In an archipelagic region where ports and roads may have been severely impaired, it is certainly a massive challenge to get those stocks flowing.

For commercial media outlets who feel the pressure of competing for eyeballs, clicks and viewership, catastrophising the situation served their interests. As New York Magazine commented regarding CNN’s falling ratings during the coverage of the budget and Obamacare crisis in the US,

If CNN can’t win the ratings during a breaking crisis, it really is in trouble.

Of course that is not to say that some officials were not doing their jobs. Reports of relief workers prioritising their own kith and kin began to filter through. One news item talked about how relatives of survivors were being ferried in to provide direct assistance to loved ones. The state was being disparaged in social media for being weak and ineffective, so much so that it had to be bypassed.

On the other hand the vice president was receiving a fair deal of criticism for attaching his seal to relief goods. A photo of these items was being circulated by the “anti-epal” brigade whose meme is the basis for a campaign against any form of opportunistic patrimonialism by public officials during elections or times of crisis. As it turns out, there is some controversy over the date in which the actual images were taken, and the source of the relief goods.

Of course publicly elected officials will want to be seen lending support at a time like this, just as foreign superpowers seeking to influence cultural memes regarding their role in the world will use their military and aid agencies to do the same. They would be criticised by their constituents for not visibly doing anything. It is part of projecting their “smart” power. Altruistic motives mix with self-serving interests. It is just curious to see how one set of actions, or one form of “speech” gets privileged over another.


The message being relayed by such memes is of a state unable to protect its own citizens within its borders, so much so that a foreign power has to swoop down and do what local authorities can’t. By elevating one form of aid and denigrating another, these memes undermine the legitimacy of local officials in the eyes of their citizens who will begin to wonder whether it is time for them to vote with their feet and leave their country for foreign soil.

In the final analysis, a sound policy response can only be developed on the basis of carefully considered information, not spin, nor sound-bites. But that is not all. Good policy is worthless if it does not have the support of a well-informed citizenry. The fact that reality gets distorted through the lens of the traditional media and magnified by online and social media makes effective policy and program implementation even more difficult since the very legitimacy of the state and of its agencies is questioned and undermined at every turn.

Eventually, the crises that we find unmanageable may in actual fact have been made unmanageable in our minds first. When that happens, it is no longer a natural catastrophe that we face, but a mediated one, artificially constructed, mindlessly adopted by us from the sources of our information that prey on our human frailties and biases.

Seeds of undoing


An essential element of Greek tragedy according to Aristotle is for protagonists to carry with them the seeds of their own undoing. Often it comes in the form of “hubris”, man’s feeling of invincibility, which makes him tempt fate, or contest the will of the gods.

The same sense of mortality that comes at the end of each plot seemed to creep in last week as results of internal polling commissioned by the administration and leaked by a Palace insider showed the president’s popularity taking a nosedive as a result of his response to the controversy involving the release of impounded government savings without congressional approval.

DAP or the disbursement acceleration program was hatched by budget secretary Butch Abad, the chief ideologue of the Liberal Party to deal with the embarrassingly sluggish pace at which the economy was crawling at the time, dragged down by fiscal contraction. This was the result of the administration’s own deliberate attempts at house cleaning by scrutinising projects and contracts which were entered into by its predecessor.

The irony is that in a bid to rid the government of the ghost of Mrs Arroyo, the Aquino administration wound up committing the very same act that it accused her of, namely re-aligning budget items out of expediency. During Mrs Arroyo’s presidency, the opposition blocked passage of her proposed general appropriations for a number of fiscal cycles forcing a re-enactment of the previous year’s budget. This enabled her to reallocate spending across departments at will for budgeted projects that had already been completed the previous year.

Mr Aquino faced an entirely different situation but ended up with the same outcome. He had no problem getting congressional sign-off on his proposed annual expenditures, which sailed through in record time. His problem was getting the approved amounts spent. Having applied the fiscal brakes too harshly in a bid to present a clean break with the past, he wound up revisiting it.

The Department of Budget and Management explains how much was spent under DAP and for what purpose, as follows

For 2011-2012, a total of P142.23 Billion was released for programs and projects identified through the DAP, of which P83.53 Billion is for 2011 and 58.70 Billion is for 2012. In 2011, the amount was used to provide additional funds for programs/projects such as healthcare, public works, housing and resettlement, and agriculture, among others. While in 2012, these were used to augment tourism road infrastructure, school infrastructure, rehabilitation and extension of light rail transit systems, and sitio electrification, among others. […]
Of the total DAP approved by OP (Office of the President) for 2011-2012 amounting to a total of P142.23 Billion only 9 percent was released to programs and projects identified by legislators. These were not released directly to legislators but to implementing agencies.

The sad thing about DAP is that even though less than a tenth of it was directed at legislators, the whole program has become tainted as a result of the scandal that broke out involving the funneling of some of this money into bogus NGOs identified by them.

Not only that, but its release coincided with the impeachment of the Arroyo-appointed chief justice, which the Palace had openly campaigned for. It carried the hint of political back scratching. Add to that the contestable basis on which one branch of government allocated its savings to another (from executive to legislative), and you have the appearance of a government that disregarded the rules in pursuit of its political agenda.

To top it all off, the president appeared on national television denouncing his critics, denying the label “king of pork” that grated his good government sensibilities, claiming that he was “not a thief” in a fashion reminiscent of US president Richard Nixon who left office in disgrace. It is truly tragic that, after cruising at an astronomically high altitude in opinion polls, stratospheric compared to his predecessors, he should come plummeting back to earth and be forced to distinguish himself from common criminals in this manner.

To think that this all happened when the government seemed to be getting into its stride. The past year has been particularly productive with the enactment of several reform measures like reproductive health, sin taxes, and universal health care. In addition, there was the uplift in the country’s credit ratings and ranking in the Doing Business Survey, the resurgence of manufacturing investments, and the signing of the peace deal with Muslim rebels. The growth figures for the first half of the year seemed appealing to most outside investors, as well.

With legal challenges left, right and centre seeking to undermine its legitimacy, the government now appears besieged. Previously, one would have been forgiven for thinking that with its recent string of successes, the regime may be able to manage an orderly succession to its hand-picked nominee. But with the Liberal Party’s important figures, Senate President Frank Drilon and Budget Secretary Butch Abad, in the hot seat for their involvement in the DAP, the party seems like a spent force, having lost its moral authority.

Elite bargain

When Senator Jinggoy Estrada angrily accused the administration of hypocrisy for what he claimed was an unfair targeting of the opposition, I expressed doubts that his tirade would inflict any serious damage on the teflon presidency of Mr Aquino. With hindsight, it now appears to have been an effective ploy. Estrada’s complaint was that there seemed to be “no honor among thieves”, that cosy symbiotic relationship among complicit individuals.

What he was referring to was the political bargain that occurs in multiparty democracies within developing states, in which power is alternately shared among various groups of elites. Corruption is tacitly tolerated because it is assumed that each group will commit it once it is their turn to rule. Allowing a group of oppositionists to be singled out for prosecution, to ruin their political careers, is in effect, reneging on this grand bargain. Mr Estrada’s retaliatory response did nothing to protect him from prosecution, but it nevertheless inflicted damage on the administration for its “unfair” actions.

Time will tell if the damage inflicted is merely a flesh cut, or a mortal wound, but from the perspective of the reformers within the administration, it is a bad omen. Not only has the focus on PDAF and DAP abuse detracted from its policy agenda, it is going to make it difficult to secure votes for what could be unpopular pieces of legislation, particularly in the lead up to the next election when political turncoats will begin sniffing the political winds in search of their new padrino.

The reform constituency often claims that in order to make our political and economic systems more inclusive, we need to eliminate all forms of rent from society. That is we need to generate a clean, accountable and transparent system of governance, and that there will be no trade-offs between pursuing this agenda and pro-poor economic growth. This is in part the fault of the international donor community that has peddled this idea for over a decade on nations with very different institutional foundations.

Reality runs contrary to this notion, particularly if you look at the development experience of the “tiger” economies of East Asia and the “lion” economies of Africa, which are the fastest growing in the world. The tragedy of Daang Matuwid, the good governance agenda of the Aquino administration was that it failed to acknowledge this. It took the economy for granted while hastily conducting a highly charged political prosecution of its predecessor regime.

When the economy started slipping into second gear, it unlocked the floodgates of spending and applied less stringent controls on congressional pork barrel projects than it enforced on its own administrative agencies. It committed an act of “hubris” in thinking that it had succeeded in transforming the political culture of the country. It now finds itself defending a system of rent distribution that its constituents consider anathema to its own brand of government.

It is for this reason that many honest, reform-minded governments get eaten up by the system they seek to change. They often set goals that are too lofty, such as the elimination of corruption within one term of office, or the removal of patronage in favour of a system that observes the rule of law and democratic accountability. In the pursuit of good governance, the perfect often becomes the adversary of the good.

At the end of such a trail is “reform-fatigue”, with a disillusioned electorate turning to corrupt leaders who are able to distribute rents in ways that cater to their local needs. Such leaders are seen to be more competent and effective. This scenario could eventuate in 2016, with many in the reform constituency distrusting the LP and seeking an alternative candidate with a fresh face. This will split their votes and allow a pragmatic populist to gain power.

The scandals that have bedevilled congress and engulfed the president have served only to discourage certain contenders from the opposition to seek higher office, clearing the way for the vice president to consolidate its forces behind him. This means that their votes are less likely to be split along factional lines. And with the vice president’s popularity remaining intact, his lead will simply be unassailable.

The only way for the ruling LP to avoid electoral defeat is for it to deliver rapid, pro-poor growth within the remainder of its term. That won’t be easy, particularly since its formula for producing it, the good governance agenda (captured in its mantra: kung walang kurap, walang mahirap) has already been discredited in different parts of the world where it has been faithfully applied.

Love or Confusion

My heart burns with feeling, but,
My mind, it’s cold and reeling
Is this love baby..
Or is it just confusion?
You tell me baby, is this
Love or confusion?

Mama, we must get together and find out
Exactly what we we’re tryin’ to do.

Jimi Hendrix

The President is facing his administration’s biggest challenge. The issue is supposed to be straightforward—the investigation and conviction of politicians and fixers who embezzled their allocation of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). The administration is committed to doing this.

The people do not want a repeat of the egregious pork barrel misallocation. Hence the demands go beyond investigation and subsequent conviction of the culprits.

The well-intentioned and the idealistic, those who belong to the million people march, have raised the stakes for change by making other demands.

Consequently, a hodgepodge of demands has emerged. And the central demand now revolves around the abolition of the so-called pork barrel.

To be sure, the corrupt, especially those implicated in the pork barrel scam, and the assorted political opportunists, have exploited the opportunity. They now ride on the crest of the popular wave.

The motivations or the objectives are different, but the do-gooders and the unscrupulous have the same call: Abolish the pork barrel, abolish PDAF.

Despite their disagreements on the pork barrel and the President’s fiscal powers (exemplified by DAP), the administration on the one hand and the do-gooders under the banner of the one million march, have a common interest in fighting corruption and effecting good governance. Indeed many of those who joined the one million march voted for PNoy and want his reforms to succeed.

But the turn of events has led to disappointment on both sides. Worse,
the polarization of the two only benefits the bad and the unscrupulous, the likes of tanda, pogi, and sexy.

Thus on the part of the administration, it is wise to distinguish between the criticisms of the do-gooders and the tirades of the self-seeking. Surely, some of the demands of the do-gooders, those that have to do with transparency and accountability, are grounded and thus deserve recognition.

On the part of the do-gooders, they likewise have to take stock and sort out the nuances or complexities of the issues. They embrace ideals and pursue them in a straight and quick way. But oftentimes, changes are slow and incremental.

Government reformers, because of the many political constraints and tradeoffs, become pragmatists and realize that what works is the second-best.

To illustrate, the million people march and government reformers have a common disdain for patronage politics. But patronage politics cannot just be wished away.

This reminds me of Marx, who said that the emergence of a classless society can only happen once the state is abolished, but to achieve this, he argued that the state first had to be strengthened through the rule of the proletariat. In the same manner, the elimination of patronage politics can be seen as an ultimate goal, but in the transition, reformers have to deal with patronage and even use it as an instrument to achieve other major reforms.

There lies the confusion. The do-gooders, who otherwise like or love PNoy, are disappointed with him for not doing enough to abolish patronage politics. On the other hand, PNoy and his nucleus realize the constraints; that the road to reforms is full of zigzags.

Confusion gets abetted when concepts about the pork barrel and the president’s public spending are unclear or ill-defined. Worse, the opportunists spread duplicitous propaganda.

For example, the faultfinders claim that PNoy has the biggest pork barrel of them all, thus earning the moniker “pork barrel king.” The problem is how they define pork barrel—anything that is lump sum and discretionary is called pork barrel. That is wrong.

Everyone has his definition of pork barrel, to include the one above. In a paper titled Politicization of Philippine Budget System: Institutional and Economic Analysis on ”Pork Barrel” (2011), Japanese academic Kohei Noda observes that “the concept of ‘pork barrel’ has never been made clear, and thus the definition of the term is heavily dependent on the speakers.

Let us then stick to the dictionary or academic definition of pork barrel. The Free Online Dictionary defines pork barrel as “a government project or appropriation that yields jobs or benefits to a specific locale and patronage opportunities to its political representative.”

Noda (2011) defines the pork barrel, as “the budgetary spending intended to benefit limited groups of constituents in return for their political support.”

In Greasing the Wheels (2004), the political scientist Dian Evans writes that the term pork barrel “was used in Congress as early as the 1870s to describe legislation containing projects for members’ districts.”

In short, lump sum and discretionary funds do not automatically make pork barrel spending. And in its strictest sense, pork barrel refers to the spending of legislators for their districts although the role of the Executive in the interaction with the legislators is relevant.

Further, lump sum and discretionary appropriations by themselves are not bad, as explained by my colleague Mario Galang in previous BusinessWorld columns. Some lump sum and discretionary funds are necessary to have flexibility and address unanticipated or uncontrollable events, starkly exemplified this year by the series of killer typhoons, the Bohol earthquake, and the Zamboanga siege.

Moreover, pork barrel funds have benefits. They are funds at the margin that respond to the specific needs of district constituents that otherwise are missed by the central plan. And as painstakingly discussed by Evans (2004), the pork barrel is an instrument to form majority coalitions to pass public interest legislation.

Another issue that confuses pertains to the constitutionality of the administration’s DAP. Anyone is entitled to an opinion that DAP is unconstitutional in the same manner that others are entitled to assert that it is perfectly legal.

The argument in favor of DAP’s constitutionality, as articulated by Mel Sta. Maria, the resident legal analyst of TV 5, is solid and convincing. The key provision is found in Article 6, Section 25 (5) of the 1987 Constitution. It says that the President “may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations.”

On this basis, to quote Sta. Maria, “the President is authorized to augment any item from the savings coming from another item. Since the constitution does not specifically limit or narrow down the type of augmentations resulting from transfers of saved-funds, the President may do any of the following: a. Transfer of savings from an item listed in the Programmed Appropriation to augment an item listed in the Unprogrammed Appropriation. b. Transfer of savings from an item listed in the Unprogrammed Appropriation to an item listed in the Programmed Appropriation.”

In addition, says Sta. Maria, the constitutional authority for the President to augment any item in the general appropriations is enabled through the 1987 Administrative Code.

The point is, there should be no confusion that the DAP at present is constitutional. That it is now being questioned in a now politicized and finicky Supreme Court is another matter altogether.

The confusion arising from differing perspectives must be addressed through honest dialogue. The civil society do-gooders and the reformers in government must dispel any perception that there is no love lost between them. Happily, they will be work together to pursue common reforms and a common dream.

To return to Marx, I recall what he wrote in Revolutionary Spain (1854): “On a closer analysis, then, of the Constitution of 1812, we arrive at the conclusion that, so far from being a servile copy of the French Constitution of 1791, it was a genuine and original offspring of Spanish intellectual life, regenerating the ancient and national institutions, introducing the measures of reform loudly demanded by the most celebrated authors and statesmen of the eighteenth century, making inevitable concessions to popular prejudice.”

What caught my attention was the phrase “making inevitable concessions to popular prejudice.” An example of such concessions: “The religion of the Spanish nation is and shall be perpetually Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman, the only true religion.”

Which leads me to this question: Will PNoy, with respect to the pork barrel and the President’s fiscal powers, make “inevitable concessions to popular prejudice?”

In fact, PNoy has given one concession to popular prejudice–the abolition of PDAF. The next step is to institute the rational reforms on transparency and accountability–the citizens’ access to public information, for instance.

These reforms have an immediate and direct impact on checking corruption related to budget appropriations. These reforms will reduce the noise and confusion. And hopefully, they will result in regaining the love between the government reformers led by PNoy and the uninitiated do-gooders.

Haiyan / #YolandaPH – achieves perfection; breaks Dvorak scale

Google Earth snapshot

Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan in an interview with Bloomberg said this of Haiyan / #YolandaPH:

“If it maintains its strength, there has never been a storm this strong making landfall anywhere in the world. This is off the charts.”

Radar loop of Haiyan from Cebu:


Dear Jiggoy

Embattled Senator Jiggoy Estrada flew off to the land of the free over the weekend. What’s the interwebs would do, but write about it? That’s exactly what “So What’s News” site did when it published, “Jinggoy Estrada Arrested After Trying to Smuggle Money Inside His Breasts to U.S.“.

Yep, as you can imagine, the news went around the InterWebs!

Rappler picked it up, and had their own witty response: “Jinggoy issues statement after ‘arrest’ in U.S.” (In case you missed it: note the URL to that).

The major newsies around got to it…and Senator Estrada took it seriously:

“My staff just called me at 5:00am to inform me that there is an article circulating in Facebook that i have been arrested in the US for bringing in huge amount of [US dollars.] That is absolutely NOT TRUE. I’ve been seen by a number of Filipinos and were happy to see me and even took pics of me. That story is incredible to say the least,” he said in a statement.

Guess that staffer no longer has a job.

Dear Jiggoy,

What does the fox say?