Anti-Poverty & Caring for the Poor

The year of the fund

A fund here, a fund there; funds were everywhere in the news, this year.

Whether it was the Supreme Court’s final ruling on the disposition of the coco levy funds invested in United Coconut Planters Bank or the investigations into the abuse of Congress’ Priority Development Assistance Fund, the misappropriation of the Malampaya Fund or the president’s social fund, funds were all over the news this year.

There is one common thread that runs through all of them: funds set aside for some kind of social or economic development need were used for personal or political motives. It didn’t matter whether they were taxpayer-sourced as in the case of PDAF or revenues from government activity such as the lottery, gambling or mining operations. The fact remains that special purpose funds can be turned into slush funds quite readily.

Perhaps that is the reason Sec Cesar Purisima stated in May this year that the idea of a Sovereign Wealth Fund created out of our foreign reserves proposed by the Bangko Sentral had lost traction and would not be taken up by this administration. It is as if the president intuitively knows that such a fund might be raided by future governments.

Unfortunately, he is busy enough dealing with the mess created by the funds that are already in place, that the setting up of a new one might seem a bit too ambitious. And there has a palpable public backlash against the use of such special purpose funds in the wake of the pork barrel scams, anyway, that such a scheme might face stiff opposition.

At any rate, since these funds have dominated the news this year, then addressing them would probably be the order of the day in the coming year. Let us not forget that in the wake of typhoon Haiyan, a Php 100 billion reconstruction fund was created to speed up the recovery of the most affected regions in the central Philippines, or that following the passage of the sin taxes act, Php 63.6 billion in revenues were generated as of September this year, which should boost the trust fund of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation.

So let me offer some unsolicited advice (as I often do in this space) on how the government ought to manage these funds.

As a general principle, if we were to retain them (and not co-mingle them with the general government revenue pot as some have suggested), then we have to move away from putting such funds under the sole discretion of an individual and allow for better governance through a deliberating body to consult and provide advice on how these funds should be spent.

With respect to PDAF, this matter has already been settled by the Supreme Court. All forms of pork cannot be allotted to members of congress to dispose of after the general appropriations act has been passed. They would have to identify the need during budget deliberations, and leave it to line agencies to address their requirements through the usual open and competitive bidding process if their proposed budget items are adopted.

Secondly, with respect to the Malampaya fund, a professional board comprised of energy and development experts must be set up to advise the Department of Energy and the president on how to apportion funds available for investment. This board could undertake public consultation through stakeholder engagement.

The proposal of several legislators to use it as a stabilisation fund against power increases could be studied as well. A comprehensive plan publicly available and developed based on the best alternatives available should be put together by this board and recommended to the president. The president could then respond to these recommendations point by point and release an annual report on the status of the fund and its activity.

Thirdly, with respect to the president’s social and charity funds resulting from the revenues from the lottery and gambling corporations of the government, the National Anti-Poverty Commission should be given the role of screening the proposed uses of the funds and advising the president on whether to adopt them. This does not limit the president’s discretion to dispose of the funds as he pleases, but at least he would do so in a considered way, as part of an anti-poverty strategy, and creating an additional layer through the commission would provide a process through which his decisions could be better informed.

Finally, when it comes to the coco levy fund recovered from UCPB and San Miguel, the same process would apply. Only this time, members of the claimant community consisting of copra or coconut farmers and beneficiaries must be represented in whatever body is set up to oversee the fund. This would allow their voices to be heard in the governance of the board that manages their money.

In all these cases, the same basic principle applies, leaving decisions to the sole discretion of an individual, be that the president or local representative sets up opportunities for corruption and cronyism. Allowing a board comprised of major stakeholders to be in charge of filtering ideas, critically assessing options and making recommendations to the executive by releasing a periodic report, and making the government account in a transparent manner the disposition of the funds through an annual statement creates greater probity and integrity into the system.

Perhaps if we could begin to demonstrate better governance in managing these special purpose funds over the next two years, then by the time the president steps down, he would leave behind a legacy of instituting substantial reforms in the way we manage and account for such public funds. These reforms would not only ensure that the money is apportioned based on its intended use, but that such appropriations are part of an overall strategy and plan and not just made willy-nilly based on personal preference or transactional methods.

Spokes in the Wheels of Justice

Towards a Genuine Agenda for a Just Society

As the world of the blogosphere, twitterverse and mainstream media soak up as much as it can from the Corona impeachment trial, delving into the subtle elements of the rules of court, rules of evidence and so, on, one wonders about the long-standing issues related to injustice and impunity that slip below the radar as far as the public policy agenda is concerned.

The wheels of justice revved up so expeditiously in the lead up to the impeachment of Corona, but they grind ever so slowly in the case of so many others. To wit, I now turn the spotlight on them in the form of a Top 5 ranking. I ask the question, what is happening to these “five spokes” in the “wheels of justice” given the fact that P-Noy’s administration has placed “judicial reform” at the top of its agenda. I highlight the status of the issues involved, some history, current developments and provide some justification for including them in the top five list. Well, without further ado, here they are:

5. Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill.

The president sent to Congress his version of the bill on Thursday, February 2, 2012. It took at least eighteen months for his government to come up with its own version of the proposed law. At first, the Palace was rather reticent about endorsing any version of the FOI bill as urgent when it hammered out its legislative agenda. Finally, it relented after several months of mounting public pressure from concerned citizens on the issue.

Many elements of the law remain contentious which means that you can expect the debate in Congress to be fierce. The House of Representatives will need to reconcile the different versions of the bill. The question is whether the Senate will have time to deliberate on it given the proceedings currently underway there.

I include this in the Top 5 Spokes of the Wheels of Justice because an FOI law would allow for greater transparency. Greater transparency would be required in ensuring that government disclose to the public what it knows about certain issues that impact on people’s lives, safety and well-being.

This is just an extension of the freedom of the press, something that was uppermost in the mind of P-Noy’s father when he languished in prison and in exile and struggled to let the world know about his story. The FOI Bill needs to have safeguards, but the risks of greater accountability should not detract from the overall vision of having a more accountable, transparent, and just society.

4. Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.

After vacillating over whether to certify as urgent any of the reproductive health bills in Congress, the president finally gave his seal of approval by proposing his own version of the RH bill. The clock ran out last year though as Congress went into recess. The problem will be enacting the bill so close to an election year when the anti-RH adherents will be fired-up to go against legislators who vote in favour of it.

The longer the impeachment trial drags on, the greater the likelihood that the RH bill will not pass, considering where we are in our political/electoral cycle.

The reason why reproductive health comprises a spoke on the wheel of justice is that it directly affects the future health and well-being of at least half the population, and it indirectly affects every newborn child. Those who study women’s issues will tell you that the way women’s rights are treated in society is a proxy for how just and tolerant society is more broadly.

The question is will we have to wait until after the 2013 elections before this bill get passed?

3. Coco levy funds

If the FOI Bill is a carryover issue from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency, and the RH Bill goes all the way back to Fidel Valdez Ramos’, the disposition of the coco levy funds goes all the way back to Ferdinand Edralin Marcos’. The coco levy fund was administered by P-Noy’s uncle, Danding Cojuangco. The current Senate president had a hand in it too.

The Supreme Court recently ruled and affirmed the Sandiganbayan antigraft court’s decision which awarded to the government close to a quarter of the shares of San Miguel Corporation that Mr Cojuangco controls. It said that the funds should be used only to benefit the farmers who had contributed to the levy after it was mandated by Mr Marcos.

This prompted a farmer’s party-list organization to press for the president’s endorsement to the house of a bill that would facilitate the return of the fund to the farmers. The said shares in San Miguel are estimated to be as high as one hundred and fifty billion pesos (Php150 Billion) presently. If spread over five years, the annual disbursement could exceed the budget for the conditional cash transfers.

This is definitely a spoke in the wheel of justice since coconut farmers occupy the lowest rung in the ladder (sorry for getting my metaphors mixed up) in the agricultural sector. They constitute the poorest of the poor. While rice farmers continue to receive billions in subsidy from the grains program each year, no such assistance is extended to coconut farmers. Yet, the biggest growth in agricultural productivity can be had if this fund were used to assist them in making their fields more productive by introducing other crops.

With the appointment of a former aide of Mr Cojuangco to the cabinet, one can be certain that the views of the old man will be represented at the table when Cabinet decides on the issue. The longer it takes for such an anomaly to be corrected (the farmers have already waited a quarter of a century), the bigger the insult suffered by those who deserve just compensation. It is their money after all.

2. Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Extensions (CARPER)

This problem goes back so long, I will not even bother to try to “date” it. The Huk rebellion in the 1950s following the war led to the election of President Ramon Magsaysay who promised to institute social reforms. What was applied though were band aid solutions. His popularity among the people which improved social cohesion and public trust in government and the availability of land in Mindanao made it possible to skirt the issue of land reform.

CARPER is just the last in a long succession of policies aimed at solving the land issue. Its immediate predecessor CARP was enacted by the late-Corazon Cojuangco Aquino’s presidency. The program was given a new lease on life at the end of GMA’s term. The current president promised to complete its implementation including resolving the Hacienda Luisita issue before stepping down in 2106. The Hacienda Luisita issue dates back to the time of Ramon Magsaysay when the government bankrolled its acquisition by the Cojuangcos by guaranteeing loans to P-Noy’s grandfather Jose Cojuangco.

Aside from the vexed issue of land distribution under CARPER, there is currently the issue of land grabbing allegedly taking place. An international fact-finding team recently investigated reports involving land covering three towns of San Mariano, Ilagan and Benito Soliven. At the heart of the problem lies Green Future Innovations, Inc which plans to put up a bio-ethanol plant that will cost $120 million. It was alleged that more than a thousand farmers and indigenous people were displaced by the project. The area involved is 2,200 hectares. The infusion of capital by a Japanese partner into the project was hailed as one of the positive developments coming out of the president’s trip to Japan last year.

Again, these are mere allegations at this point, but they are disconcerting given the context. They raise the question of whether the government has a land use policy in mind and how it plans to handle the question of foreign ownership of land. This is a sleeper issue. The same thing could conceivably be duplicated by China in its search for energy resources. At the root of this problem is the question of property rights. How are they defined and protected? What measures will the government take to ensure that land is used productively to benefit our national interests.

1. Compensation for Martial Law victims

I place this on top of the agenda. Why? Because in the others (save perhaps for the RH Bill and the case of Hacienda Luisita), people were deprived of either their property or right to information. Here, they were deprived of their lives and their liberty. The arbitrary use of police powers by the state to abuse its people, the very citizens whose rights they are meant to protect, well, no graver injustice can be said to occur.

Yet,  a quarter of a century has passed, and we are still awaiting some final closure to this issue. Even after the case was won securing money from the Marcoses to compensate the 7,500 victims, the orderly distribution of ten billion pesos worth of those funds is yet to be framed by Congress. A bill in the House has already made its way through the appropriations committee as of February 7, 2012. This paves the way for deliberations on the floor. Whether or not there will be enough time to hammer out the bill and enact it this year is another question. In March last year, victims started to receive compensation in the form of a $7.5 million award from a US court.

After waiting so long, the end is finally in sight. Each year, a few of the original surviving victims pass away without seeing their claims recognized. Honoring them and their loved ones through compensation would be the best way to bring closure to this dark chapter in our nation’s history.

Conclusion

In pursuing justice, the Palace has chosen to focus on the injustices that occurred during the last five years of the Arroyo presidency by going after her henchmen  whom she had left behind entrenched in certain sensitive positions. Last year saw a growing body count of individuals tied to the former regime. The latest target, the chief justice, is currently occupying the nation’s attention with live coverage of his courtroom drama unfolding daily.

Meanwhile, there are decades’ old injustices perpetrated by past regimes that remain unresolved. Indeed, if the Palace had pursued these cases with as much vigour and swiftness that it demonstrated when it filed the impeachment complaint against the chief justice, then perhaps its victims would be able to heave a heavy collective sigh of relief. The wheels of justice they say grind slowly. Justice delayed is justice denied. Let it not be said that this government turned its back on “the least of our brethren” whom it claims to be fighting for.

A Quarter of the Way

image courtesy of 123rf.com

That is how much of P-Noy’s term of office would have expired by the end of next month. It usually marks the end of the window of opportunity for introducing major reforms. In the case of the US presidency, the current occupant of the White House President Obama was able to introduce his stimulus program, banking reform and of course, the once in a lifetime reform of the healthcare system within his first eighteen months in office.

At the end of that period, the tea party movement rebelled against the direction he was taking the nation and voted the Democrats out of their majority in the lower house of congress. The new Republican-led house’s intransigence over the deficit has blocked any further reforms (witness the failure of the super committee over the weekend), and it will probably take another election to allow the grid-lock to be broken.

As we approach the quarter mark of P-Noy’s presidency, it is worth reflecting on his accomplishments or lack thereof and the conditions under which he has had to govern that may or may not have enabled him to achieve what he promised during his campaign. More than anything, I believe that these first eighteen months have highlighted the inconsistencies in his promises and the inevitable tensions that come about from pursuing them.

Firstly, let me tackle his social contract and the plugging of the fiscal deficit. Due to his pledge of no new taxes, the finance and budget departments have had to rely on better tax compliance and program savings in order to bridge the government’s fiscal gap while attending to social and economic infrastructure programs. This is in a country of very wealthy elites who are averse to paying their fair share of taxes.

Despite my distaste for the government’s attempts at “fiscal consolidation” a euphemism for austerity measures I dubbed the “surplus fetish”, one benefit that I now see with the way in which they have gone about things is that it has exposed the inability of tax agencies even under the best efforts of honest officials to raise enough revenue to meet the government’s social compact obligations.

This is why Secretary Purisima, in a bid to shore up enough revenues down the track has flagged a few revenue measures to congress including the rationalization of fiscal incentives, the indexation of sin taxes, and as recently as this week the raising of a minerals tax similar in vein to the Australian resource rent scheme. These three taken alongside the stricter enforcement of the tax code on self-employed entrepreneurs and professionals could yield an estimated four hundred billion pesos, enough to close the fiscal gap and then some.

Enacting these revenue measures would lift the tax collection effort to a more sustainable nineteen percent of GDP, a position last held in the late-90s when the country eked out a surplus. The reform of the tax and incentives system would allow a more progressive and equitable fiscal expenditure program. One reason why the growth of the last decade was not felt by the broad masses of people was that the growth went largely to big business in the form of profits. Benefits through the tax system could not be shared with the less fortunate as the tax collection rate continued to decline despite the growth.

The absence of a successful asset reform program to tackle landlessness in the rural sector led to continued urban migration and growth of informal labor markets. This normally would lead to greater social insurance spending by the state, but this has only been recently addressed with the conditional cash trasnfers program. By next year, the government believes it will cover two of the four million poorest households. The funding comes from the scaling down of the grains importation program, a low lying fruit. To cover the remainder would require doubling the current thirty billion pesos spent on the program. This can only be accomodated through new taxes.

Secondly, given the new-found consensus around new revenue measures, getting them adopted will entail the exertion of executive will and the full cooperation from the congressional leadership. The legislative record of the government has been rather dismal with only 3.25 of its thirty three priority measures passed this year.

These include the reform of government-owned and controlled corporations, changes to labor regulations covering night shifts for women and the synchronization of the elections in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao with the rest of the country. The passage of an ammendment to the Electric Power Industry Reform Act that contained one fourth of the recommended changes of the administration accounts for a quarter-measure (hence 3.25 out of 33 measures).

At this rate, it will take a little over ten years to get all of the priority bills passed, including the reproductive health bill which has been seized on by the local Occupy movement. The actual tally of bills passed was seven, three of them not flagged as urgent including one that granted Philippine citizenship to a certain Marcus Eugene Douthit. The country spends about a hundred and ten billion pesos a year for both houses of congress. This is about sixteen billion pesos per measure, which represents very low value for money.

Contrast that with the performance of the Gillard government in Australia which passed two hundred and fifty measures this year including a highly contentious carbon tax and emissions trading scheme. This is quite impressive considering that it has had to seek an alliance with the Greens and a few independents to see these bills through both the lower and upper house.

In the Philippines, the majority in the lower chamber is always loyal to the president, which makes the Senate the only real check on executive power. But the senators unlike in the past are not particularly hostile to P-Noy, which represents a window of opportunity. Unfortunately, much of the upper chamber’s attention has been devoted to controversies involving the former regime which is perhaps why it has had little time to devote to other matters.

Thirdly, the pursuit of the rule of law and anti-corruption under the rubric of Daang Matuwid (Righteous Path) and the prosecution of the former president have come into conflict with each other. It is clear that P-Noy does not want a repeat of the ongoing saga with the Marcoses. This is perhaps the reason why he sought to bring Mrs Arroyo to justice by sending her to jail before Christmas this year.

The lady he has put to the task, his justice secretary, might have skirted a few legal formalities in order to make that happen. This is the conclusion arrived at by a few dispassionate observers including legal luminary Fr Joaquin Bernas, SJ, dean emeritus of the Ateneo Law School from where a number of the president’s men have been trained.

During the campaign, it seemed that the rule of law was intertwined with bringing Mrs Arroyo to justice for misdeeds done while in office. Now, given the situation where the high court is stacked with her appointees, certain exigencies have to be dispensed with in going after her. Indeed it would be preferable from Mrs Arroyo’s point of view for these cases to be tried immediately while she still enjoys some legal cache with those on the Corona bench.

In pursuing the case against her, P-Noy runs the risk of succumbing to the “dark side” by employing extra-legal or extra-constitutional tactics as she did during her presidency. Rather than lifting the country out of the mud, what could happen is that his presidency could get dragged through it with her. The impending release of the Supreme Court’s order to distribute his family’s hacienda to its poor tenants can be seen as a form of retribution. It distorts the narrative of “light vs darkness” by laying the blame for social inequity and injustice squarely on the president.

At any rate, what economists and foreign investors mean when they refer to the rule of law has nothing to do with prosecuting former incumbents but with the securing of ownership and property rights and the efficient enforcement of contracts. And here once again, the pursuit of daang matuwid has led to the scrapping of a few contracts involving foreign donors and their suppliers for the simple reason that they were signed by the former president. This has if anything maintained the image of the Philippines as a country with a high sovereign risk attached to it.

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on how the shadow and specter of Mrs Arroyo’s administration has haunted her successor. In the first instance, an absence of public trust in government has cemented the idea in P-Noy’s head that he could only fund his social contract by improving tax collection rather than new taxes. This has been shown to be a false economy of sorts. Secondly, investigations into anomalies committed by her have distracted congress from pursuing his legislative agenda. Thirdly, prosecuting her at all costs has compromised his pursuit of the rule of law, property rights and good governance.

At some point, P-Noy will have to pivot from correcting the errors of the past to ensuring a brighter future for all. To do that, he will have to wrestle with the internal inconsistencies of his reform agenda and exert executive will to get his measures passed as well as restraint when required to show an even hand in prosecuting Mrs Arroyo.

In the end, he would want to avoid a problem known to economists as the winner’s curse. This situation could arise if he becomes overly-invested in the hunt for personal vindication against Mrs Arroyo and her minions. In seeking to settle a few scores with her, he might eventually get side-tracked into a very personal and passionate fight. This could detract him from pursuing a much broader reform agenda for the country. In this manner, he could easily squander the remaining time he has in office and wind up with very little to show for it.

New Beacons of Hope: 9th Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations

I’ve been a part of the search for Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations for three years already because of the nature of my job. No, I am not one of the finalists, let’s just say our office is pretty much involved in this annual search for youth organizations who have created huge impacts in their communities.

Being a staff in the Office of Senator Kiko Pangilinan, an institutional partner of the search, I’ve been involved in this annual search in various ways, but the 9th search for Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations is probably one of the most memorable TAYO searches I have experienced. Not only because I was chosen as one of the national judges for NCR but also because of the once in a lifetime opportunity to have a seat down chat with some of the TAYO 9 finalists, who, too much of my delight, emerged as part of the Top Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations this year. (5 finalists in our table won)

L-R Joeby Barrientos (Aklan Catholic College Junior Philippine Institute of Accountants); Rox Murillo (Industrial Engineering Council of the Cebu Institute of Technology-University); Cyril Sayre (Association of Locally Empowered Youth in Northern Mindanao); Lesly Anne Bangoy (MACO Youth for Peace); Rob Basco (Youth Solidarity for Peace); and Lea Asuncion (Indak Kabataan Youth Organization)

Indak Kabataan, a youth organization in a depressed area in Alabang, Muntinlupa, who’s main program “Organisadong Binyagan,” focuses on kids ages 3 and above in their community to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. The group raise money to fund the project by joining dance contests, cleaning canals in nearby communities, and through support from some City officials. Unknown to many, due to poverty in slum areas, some parents can’t even afford to have their babies baptized. And this is where Indak Kabataan Youth Organization (IKYO) comes in. All the nitty-gritty is covered by the group, the church, priest, clothes and a simple gathering after the christening.

NYC Chairman Leon Flores III explains all about NYC and its projects and advocacies during the NYC Bloggers Night
NYC Chairman Leon Flores III explains all about NYC and its projects and advocacies during the NYC Bloggers Night

Personally, I must admit that This youth organization struck me the most because of how it helps rehabilitate juvenile delinquents, whom, they admitted, were mostly “drug addicts” when the group was formed on 2006. As I have mentioned, I was one of the judges during the NCR Area finals and I was moved by the story of Lea Asuncion, the group’s President and representative for TAYO 9. I thought to myself that the group has a lot of potential if only given the proper guidance and support. And in my personal opinion, helping CICL (Children in conflict with the law) prove that there’s always a room for change and growth really gives a direct impact, not only in their community, via their projects, but also in the lives of their volunteers. Congrats to Indak Kabataan Youth Organization for being one of this year’s winners. This group is a concrete example that everyone can change, especially the youth, if they are given proper guidance and care. Thus, as how they put it, the once “perwisyo sa komunidad” is now the “pag-asa ng bayan.”

On the other hand, another youth organization from Mindanao, called Association of Locally Empowered Youth in Northern Mindanao (ALEY NM) sparked my interest upon reading their group’s entry this year. Yes, ALEY NM was also a TAYO finalists last year but they weren’t able to make it to the Top Ten so I was happy that this year, they were able to make it.

Their project entry “Improving Food Security among Rural Youths and their Families” rings a bell, especially nowadays that food security is an issue that the Philippines should really focus on.

Cyril Sayre, one of the volunteers and this year’s representative of ALEY NM was very passionate as he was explaining to me their project entry this year. I find their project an out of the box way addressing food security in the rural areas of Misamis Oriental, which is also one reason why others may find it a bit odd. But hey, they won’t bag the the Lenovo Most Innovative Project special award for nothing. ^_^

But really, the technology or system that they use to produce vermi-composted organic matter as fertilizer mixed with human waste (feces and urine) is really brilliant. Not to mention they are also helping poor families to have their very own concrete toilets (yes, believe it or not, most rural families in their area still don’t have toilets) aside from teaching them the value and importance of backyard farming, by providing their beneficiaries with seedlings and teaching them how to grow it even if they don’t have their own backyards. (Most of their beneficiaries live in coastal areas)

Aside from vegetables, tree seedlings are also sold to be able to raise fund for their projects. These tree seedlings are commonly used for tree planting activities. “Food always in the home” is ALEY’s vision.

Me with Cyril Sayre of the Association of Locally Empowered Youth in Northern Mindanao

Another entry from Mindanao, specifically in Zamboanga City, is the Youth Solidarity for Peace – Peace Advocates. Like the two previous groups and projects I just mentioned, what could be even more timely, especially in Mindanao, but the issue of peace.

And like ALEY, YSP was also a TAYO 8 finalists but wasn’t able to make it to the Top 10 so I’m happy for the group that they were able to enter the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations this year.

Robert Bacso, YSP volunteer and the group’s representative for this year’s search was overflowing with energy as he was explaining to us during the NYC Bloggers Night their project and how helpful their summer camps are, especially to the Mindanao youth.

Their project entry this year is “Peace Education through Summer Peace

NCR Commissioner Georg Nava explains all about the TAYO Search

Camps.” It is an initiative that aims to “build a peace constituency among children and youth through the culture of peace and framework. This summer camp is being held annually and is composed of youth leaders from different institutions, out-of-school youths, young professionals, as well as young people with special needs regardless if they are Muslims, Catholics, or are a part of the indigenous tribes. Good thing about this summer camp is that it’s TOTALLY FREE! YSP believes that conducting peace camps will help instill the culture of peace in the minds of the young people, which will eventually eliminate signs of apathy and violence. Very interesting indeed! He even told us that we can join in one of their summer camps if we wish. ^_^

By the way, after the awarding ceremonies in Malacanang last October 27, we congratulated Rob (Robert’s nickname) and he handed us (Liz Reyes and I) a sort of kit, which I really find very cute and creative by the way, and a book entitled “The Thread that Binds.” And based on the book’s introduction, “the book is not only a narration of what had happened in the project areas [jn Mindanao] over a period of four years, rather, they are an expression of what it means to be liberated from the grinding chains of poverty and disposession, to finally have something to hold on to, and to know once more what it means to be a human being.” Haven’t read the whole book yet, just scanned through the pages but it seems a nice read.

As how Rob would put it, they want people to see Mindanao in a different light. And one of their projects is actually to keep Mindanao away from the shadow of war, thus they have this vision of “terrorism to tourism.”

The creative YSP Summer Camp Kit and book given by Rob

I would love to get to know more the other groups as well because based on their introductions and project descriptions, their entries are very much interesting, but due to lack of time and for fear that this piece might go on forever, I would just like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to all the Top 20 finalists for being an agent of change at a young age. Truly, they are inspirations worth emulating. They give hope to our nation that there are still people who, despite their lack of resources and support from the government, still try to help their fellowmen the best way they can.

 

CONGRATULATIONS and SEE YOU NEXT YEAR for TAYO 10!

 

The Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations for 2011 (TAYO 9). Awarding was held at Heroes Hall, Malacanang Palace with President Benigno Simeon Aquino III as Keynote Speaker

Please visit www.tayoawards.net for more information about the TAYO search. Check the LIST of TAYO 9 Winners HERE.

 

PostScript: A representative from La Salle Worlds Debate presented their project and the upcoming worlds debate this year and early next year. Mind you, it’s very interesting!!! I’m not a debater but I would definitely love to watch brilliant minds debate. Hope I can watch it. ^_^ Here’s DLSU Worlds website for more information. TAKE ME TO MANILA!!!

 

Worlds Debate

 

***Thanks to the National Youth Commission (NYC) for the invite***

 

 

Towards a Strategic Development Road Map (Update)

The following is a matrix of the Strategies contained in the government’s Philippine Development Plan 2011-16  plotted against the five key results areas under the Cabinet Cluster system of the Aquino Cabinet.

The five themes include: 1) Good Governance and Anti-Corruption, 2) Human Development and Poverty Reduction, 3) Economic Development, 4) Security, Justice and Peace, and 5) Climate Change, Adaptation and Mitigation. This was contained in Executive Order 43: Pursuing our Social Contract with the Filipino People Through the Reorganization of the Cabinet Clusters.

The strategies under each theme were taken from the Philippine Development Plan 2011-16. In some cases, the actual targets were contained in it or some other announcement such as the renewable energy target. Some targets we are actually proposing here based on the intent of the PDP and other statements by the government. Some targets remain ambiguous or require quantification, but at least a measurement indicator is identified here.

This should form the basis for a periodic review of the government’s progress in meeting its official development plan and agenda. In the future, we will be revisiting these targets to hold this government to account. Comments on the construction of the matrix are quite welcome. Feel free to point out things that are missing or need to be revised.

Scorecard of Social Contract and Philippine Development Plan 2011-16 Targets

UPDATE:

Good governance targets

I chose to go with the World Bank’s Good Governance indicators because the government has adopted its whole philosophy of economic development from the Washington Consensus. It is only but fitting that it should benchmark itself against the indicators set by this Washington-based institution.

In setting the targets for the nation, I had to benchmark our rating with our East Asian neighbors. For instance under control of corruption, the Philippines and Indonesia were at 27.1 and 28.1 respectively, China and Vietnam were at 36.2 and 36.7, Thailand was at 51, and Malaysia was at 58.1 back in 2009. Hong Kong and Singapore were in the 90s.

It is only but fitting that we try to break into the range of Thailand and Malaysia. So I said we need to be achieving above 50%. I used a similar approach with the other indicators in this area.

Human Development and Poverty Reduction

Most of the targets found here were lifted from the government’s plan. The only target which I had to set on my own was the HDI target. To do this I simply projected the current trend from 2005 to 2010.  The target of reaching a 0.65 value for HDI means we would catch up to where Thailand and Sri Lanka were back in 2010.

All the other targets dealing with poverty reduction, literacy, land reform and distribution, Pantawid Pamilya recipients, housing and reaching the MDG targets were all based on official published documents by the government.

Economic Development

Most of the targets came from official published documents by the government. The only targets where I took the liberty of setting were the fiscal spending targets, but even there I took the policy pronouncements contained in the PDP into account.

For example, the PDP stated that its Medium Term Expenditure goal was to “substantially increase productive expenditures and catch up with the accumulated deficits in these areas.” It also noted that in 2007, the average expenditure on education among our Asian neighbors was 3.9% of GDP. To “catch-up” and make up for our accumulated deficits, we would need to at least match that spending, which is reflected in the target.

Aside from education, the PDP also made mention of our infrastructure spending which is woefully inadequate when compared with that of China, Vietnam, and Thailand which spent upwards of 7, 8 and 14% of GDP over the last decade. The 5% target was based on the World Bank’s recommended level for a middle income country such as ours. In other words, it was a modest but reasonable target in light of our regional peers’ spending.

The targets for achieving higher rankings in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness and World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business reports are self-explanatory. You can see by reading their most recent editions the countries in whose proximity we would be landing if we achieved the targets.

The consumer welfare and agricultural productivity targets are yet undefined and merit further discussion.

Security, Justice and Peace

The target for achieving political stability was arrived at similar to the other good governance targets already discussed above. The defense modernization target assumes that the government has a revised plan for this and will be working towards achieving 100% of it by the end of its term. Finally, the press freedom strategy and target, I had to personally add given the silence of the PDP on it. I based this on PNoy’s policy pronouncements at an AFP conference call. I further believe the Human Rights Commission should seek to publish official statistics in the area so that we can aim to bring that figure down.

Climate Change, Adaptation and Mitigation

The targets for reducing environmental damage and casualties are yet undefined but flow directly from the strategies outlined in the PDP. The rest of the targets contained here are from official published statements by the government, including the renewable energy target.

Why the Need for a Scorecard?

It has been nearly three months since the cabinet reorganization was announced, and yet it seems no further developments were made towards fleshing out the social contract in terms of major strategies and targets, which the EO that created it envisioned.

That is the reason why we have taken this bold step towards developing this strategic development road map. Of course, nothing would please us more than to see the government announce something similar. When it does, we will be sure to revise the document to reflect it.

The Propinoy Project began as an attempt to hold the government to account for its electoral promises. Now that the government has officially laid down its official policies and plan for its term, it is but fitting that we assess its future performance against its own targets with objective baselines and independent and reliable sources.

This matrix as detailed as it is cannot capture the complexities at the implementation or operational level. We leave that to the community service organizations who are partnered with various agencies to monitor. At least at the strategic level we can look at this scorecard to assess whether the government is doing the right things (and doing them right!) at the operational level to achieve its strategic goals.

Securing our future through Agriculture

Image courtesy of COCAFM

The average age of Filipino farmers, according to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, is 57. Meanwhile, the average age of the Department of Agriculture‘s (DA) employees is mid 50’s.  Aren’t  the figures alarming?

To solve this hounding problem in the Philippine agricultural sector, DA Secretary Proceso Alcala announced during the third Cabinet Cluster on Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation and Food Security on Wednesday, July 13, that the Aquino government is providing scholarship grants to Filipinos especially the children of farmers to encourage them to take-up courses in agriculture.

“Ang malaking kikitain ang nag-aakit sa mga magsasaka para payagan ang anak niya na kumuha ng agricultural classes. Meron po tayong scholarship funds,” said Alcala.

In addition, the DA Secretary affirms that government programs in agriculture are now in place to help farmers and empower them with proper farming practices and the provision of funding support to increase their productivity in their respective communities.

“Kung iyon pong magulang (farmers) nabigyan natin ng pagkakataon na kumita

Image courtesy of COCAFM

na hindi naman po sila nag-aral ng kumpleto nung una pero dahil sa tamang tulong ngayon na technical, may access sa funds, with that marketing help (from the government), kumikita na po sila ng mas mahigit sa isang ordinaryong empleyadong sumusweldo sa banko,” Alcala stressed.

With the continuous rise in unemployment rate in the country, Sec. Procy said that it is more wise and practical to send children in agricultural schools which are more affordable than allowing them to take-up expensive courses that won’t land them a job.

Sec. Proceso Alcala said that the Department of Agriculture is working hard to achieve and implement effectively government programs to meet President Aquino’s order to advocate and support the productivity of farmers in the countryside or rural areas where help is most needed.

On the other hand, the DA secretary also emphasized the need of Filipino farmers to undergo training in pest management, organic farming and other services to sustainable management of crops, livestocks and grains.

Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, who has been closely working with Sec. Alcala, said in one of his press releases that there are lots of opportunities in farming and what’s needed is actually a synergy of the whole chain–from the producers to the traders.

Image courtesy of COCAFM

The Senator also wishes to change how farmers are generally perceived and turn them as “farmpreneurs.” (coined from the word farmer and entrepreneur)

“We will build their capacity to earn more by providing them the means to sell their products directly to market via our fellow AF2025 convenors. We also have in AF2025 the built-in network to ensure the sustainability of the project,” said the Senator.

Sen. Pangilinan along with the Department of Agriculture and the private sector convened the Agriculture and Fisheries 2025 (AF2025), gathering for the first time representatives of farmers, traders, suppliers and media to craft a long-term plan in addressing the country’s various agriculture and fisheries issues.

“This is an out-of-the box way of approaching decades-old problem of unemployment, poverty, and food self-sufficiency. And this is exactly the proverbial shot in the arm needed to boost further what the DA under the Aquino administration has accomplished. It is about time our agriculture and fisheries sector get the recognition and status that they deserve,” conveyed Pangilinan.

Sticking to the script

Marking the 113th anniversary of the Philippine declaration of independence, President Aquino used the solemn occasion to highlight the fulfillment of his campaign pledge to rid the country of corruption.

Speaking at the ancestral mansion of Emilio Aguinaldo, the revolutionary leader in Kawit, Cavite, who became the first Philippine president, PNoy said that he would end the cycle of corruption that has added to the suffering of Filipinos living below the poverty line. At the shrine of Jose Rizal in Luneta, the president rhetorically asked whether indeed the national artist would still have been willing to lay down his life to free his country if he were alive today.

At the Vin d’honneur in Malacanang Palace, PNoy affirmed to everyone there that just as his parents dedicated their lives to the restoration of freedom and the rebuilding of democracy, he would dedicate his to bring about a more prosperous and progressive country.

In all these speeches, the president appeared to be “sticking to the script” that was laid down during his election campaign of fighting poverty by eradicating corruption. The president was indeed most presidential when he stuck to the high road in this way pointing to modest achievements in his first year of having stopped questionable contracts and compensation practices in government agencies and companies.

It was through his spokeswoman Abigail Valte that we learned that this involved some $23 million or over P1 billion in spending at the public works department and from Budget Sec Butch Abad we found out that GOCC’s were able to produce $686 million or P29.5 billion worth of savings this year. Part of these savings went to housing of soldiers in Bulacan province.

It appears therefore that the president seems fully convinced that the path he has chosen of reducing waste in government will lead to greater capacity on the government’s part to raise social spending and bring down the incidence of poverty. The example he cites was the reduction of rice importation to less than half of the previous year’s 2.5 million tons and the funding of the conditional cash transfers program benefiting indigent families.

Perhaps where PNoy appeared less presidential and deviated from the script somewhat was when he addressed criticisms from the opposition accusing him of living the “high life” by his enjoyment of “wine, women and song” or “fast cars and girls”. The president’s response that he had done nothing illegal seemed to mimic the former US president Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair or the more contemporary case of New York Cong Weiner who admitted to flirting with several women via Twitter.

Aside from this, one other possible inaccuracy in his speeches was when he pointed out that the savings made by his government through the close scrutiny of its infrastructure and loan contracts were re-allocated to social programs. The first year of his presidency has indeed seen a slowdown of government capital expenditure and interest payments, but the growth in its spending for social programs resulting from this has yet to be seen.

Indeed the first few months of this year saw the rise of hunger, unemployment and poverty along with a rapid slowdown in growth. Perhaps this inconvenient truth was what was left out in all the speeches. However, PNoy did admit that the challenges of improving living conditions still remained, and that he was committed to address them during the remainder of his presidency.

The more important question however is whether the formula he has set out to follow will indeed produce the sort of growth and jobs that it promises to deliver or whether the script needs to change at some point.

The Austerity of Hope

Has PNoy’s righteous path unintentionally led to more misery?

In 1973, a book co-authored by public policy guru Aaron Wildavsky was published. It had a very verbose title that read: Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland; Or Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work At All; This Being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes.

The book examined the EDA, an agency that still exists today and is located within the US Department of Commerce to show how policies conceived with the best of intentions at the top, get corrupted and bungled on the way to implementation. It is a cautionary tale on the limits of idealism and noble intentions, a vivid exposition of that oft repeated phrase that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There can be no more apt way to depict the manner the PNoy presidency has conducted itself during its first year in office. The Filipino equivalent, which goes, maraming namamatay sa maling akala (or many perish because of false assumptions), also rings true. The president to be sure entered the Palace with nothing but the best of intentions propelled by the highest hopes of the people with a vision for

a re-awakened sense of right and wrong, through the living examples of our highest leaders…a collective belief that doing the right thing does not only make sense morally, but translates into economic value as well (from the Liberal Party’s Social Contract).

The movement that had pushed him to enter the derby wanted a person whose reputation would contrast with the existing field. The election was to be framed as a contest between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, anchored on the moral superiority of their cause.

When he announced his candidacy, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino used the words of an admirer to capture the moment, in that “we can finally dare to have hope once more.” He was declared the Philippine equivalent of Barrack Obama, whose book The Audacity of Hope inspired the 2008 presidential campaign slogan, Change We Can Believe In.

At his inaugural, the Benign One pledged that

(t)hrough good governance in the coming years, we will lessen our problems. The destiny of the Filipino will return to its rightful place, and as each year passes, the Filipino’s problems will continue to lessen with the assurance of progress in their lives.

During his first formal address to Congress, the president stated that the nation faced a fork in the road. On the one hand was the quick and easy path that led to destruction, while on the other was the long and arduous one that led to deliverance. He pledged to take the nation straight down the Righteous Path or Daang Matuwid.

In his first budget statement, he fulfilled a campaign pledge to institute a zero-based budgeting approach to weed out anomalous projects and programs. Only those considered necessary and above board would receive funding. On balance it was a frugal budget, less than 2% above the previous year’s before accounting for inflation, which meant that he had effectively shrank the government. This was meant to give himself a fighting chance to fulfill his “no new taxes” pledge to businessmen at the big end of town.

All of this was in keeping with the vision for a country with a new set of morals that would translate into economic value.

At the halfway mark of his first year in December last year, a number of positive trends seemed to indicate a very auspicious start to the president’s term. The growth momentum experienced in the first half of the year seemed to have carried through in the latter half.

Fast forward two quarters to today and all of the indicators seem to be pointing downwards. Not only has investor confidence been a bit more sanguine and consumer confidence turned sour, but poverty and hunger seem to be on the rise along with unemployment. Some of these headwinds are caused by external events like the uprisings in the Middle East and natural disasters in New Zealand and Japan, but could they also be self-inflicted handicaps?

What’s going on?

Well it seems that in their bid to control government waste and corruption, the administration has unintentionally created a situation where much of its programmed spending was held back (up to 20% in the first quarter alone). The massive withholding of spending amounting to close to 70 billion pesos in the first four months of the year (which when we factor in negative multiplier effects is really around 100-150 billion pesos or 1-1.5% of GDP) appears to have had an adverse impact as contractors stopped hiring and in fact layed off more workers.

This occurs at a time of rising cost of living presssures and as a fresh batch of new graduates are about to join the labor market. Despite spending more on conditional cash grants to alleviate the plight of the poor, the actions of the palace seems to have made life much worse for many of them. The government in effect seems to be giving with one hand while taking away with the other.

It seems that in seeking to treat the symptoms of moral degradation and heal the body politic, PNoy forgot the first maxim of the Hyppocratic Oath, which is to do no harm. Indeed as it nears the end of its first year in office, the government of the Benign One appears to have very little to show for its posturing on institution building and bringing about greater economic benefits of a cleaner, moral government: perhaps a case of great expectations dashed once more.

P-Noy’s “Penance” for the RH Bill

Heading into the Easter break, the president makes a pitch for his own version of the reproductive health bill. Could this be his way of making penance with the pro-RH cause for the sin of omitting their bill from his legislative priorities?

With his poll numbers slipping, the president has sought to present himself as being more pro-active in leading from the front rather than taking a hands-off approach on a number of issues. With respect to the impeachment trial of the ombudsman, we have seen him make pronouncements regarding the need to convict Ms Merceditas Gutierrez an appointee of and proxy for the former president Gloria Arroyo whose following in the house of representatives, President Aquino sees as a stumbling block for his social reform policies. These policies involve the winding down of the grains subsidy program and the scaling up of the conditional cash transfers (CCT) program.

Mrs Arroyo challenged the president’s priorities and questioned the government’s capacity to absorb the growth of the CCT a while back. Was she speaking from experience? When her government increased the budgets for agricultural inputs and micro-lending via the now derided fertilizer fund and the now financially troubled Quedancor, such questions were not raised by her. It is for failing to prevent such catastrophic policy blunders that the current president wants the ombudsman to run after officials of the former one.

Regarding the CCT program expansion itself, two things can be said:

  • First, when it comes to dispensing money as opposed to physical goods like fertilizer to farmers and grains to needy groups or acting like a financial intermediary in assessing loan worthiness of hog raisers, the infrastructure required and scope for possible leakage is much smaller. So scaling up the CCT is less prone to problems of corruption and wastage as the fertilizer and rice subsidy or micro-lending and swine programs were,
  • Second, when it comes to deciding what to spend on for poverty alleviation, the poor households through the women folk are best placed to make these decisions rather than any government bureaucrat. So giving cash directly to households through the existing banking infrastructure proves to be much more effective and efficient in terms of producing the kind of outcomes needed.

Now coming to the ultimate social reform policy (I say ultimate since it affects much of the MDG targets either directly or indirectly), the president choosing his audience wisely made an impassioned plea before graduating scholars of the country’s premier state university to be heard amid the ongoing rancorous debate over the RH Bill. His own proposal the RP Bill (responsible parenthood bill) differs from the former in that it envisions separate government run health centers to provide natural family planning counseling services as distinct from modern ones. At present the current RH Bill would have all the different forms of family planning services provided under one roof.

This he says was his way of making concessions to the Catholic clergy who suspended talks with him after the RH Bill got introduced into the plenary debate in Congress. The question is, does the amendment proposed by the president help secure more votes for the bill or not? Judging from the comments made on both sides of the debate, the answer is probably no. Many on the pro-RH side would see it as just a waste of funds. What would be the advantage of separating the providers of service? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have provision consolidated?, would be their main points against it. Those on the anti-RH side would still find objectionable the fact that the government will be promoting other forms of family planning that they deem immoral.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

So what benefit would introducing this new version of the bill bring? For those who have been advocating and waiting for it, this belated proposal would only threaten the passage of the current one making its way through the legislative grind. Such a proposal would be useful as a possible revision after the bill is enacted into law, if and only if it was found that consolidation produced unwanted and unforeseen consequences. Perhaps the only benefit is for the president himself, i.e. to justify his reasons for not prioritizing the RH Bill on the one hand, while claiming to be in principle behind it on the other. Splitting hairs, one might say, or quibbling over the details.

This hardly makes for decisive leadership. On the other hand, at least the president is saying he is with the RH cause in principle. Or in the spirit of the season, he would be saying that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And that in essence is what this whole debate may be all about.

The joke is on us!

The Supreme Court ruling favoring former Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Jr. demonstrates that kleptocracy is alive and well in the country.

As economist Cielito Habito will tell you, coconut farmers not rice farmers constitute the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. They also account for a larger bulk of the farming sector (whether you account for this on the basis of land area cultivated or number of individuals engaged in it). Improving their lot in life therefore should be on top of any poverty alleviation agenda.

Under Martial Law between 1972 and 1982, coconut farmers were burdened with a levy that was meant to be used for upgrading common facilities and infrastructure that would ultimately benefit the sector. The man in charge of what essentially could be regarded a monopoly was businessman Danding Cojuangco, an estranged cousin of the jailed opposition leader’s Benigno Aquino, Jr’s wife (mother of the current president who incidentally reconciled with his uncle prior to his election).

What did Mr Cojuangco do with the immense powers and resources entrusted to him? Well, he claims to have “borrowed” the funds from the United Coconut Planters Bank, an entity bought using the coco levy funds, to purchase a 20% stake in San Miguel Corporation, one of the biggest conglomerates in the country. So rather than going to the poorest of the poor, the funds were allocated to benefit the corporate and financial ambitions of the man whose responsibility it was to look out for their welfare.

Did he violate his duties not just as a public official in charge of the stewardship of their funds but as a corporate officer of the bank from where he had sourced his “loan”? The Supreme Court in a split decision seems to believe that he didn’t. This is despite the financial regulations that we have regarding banks lending a substantial amount of their funds to directors, officers, stakeholders and related interests.

Under normal circumstances, such an inequitable and imprudent decision by a public and corporate official would not have been condoned. Such a blatant disregard for the interests of those whose toil produced the resources would have only been possible under a dictatorship. It is that action that the Supreme Court has legitimized with its ruling.

Although the decision is still subject to a possible motion for reconsideration, if it were to stand, it would probably be one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poorest and lowliest members of society to one of the wealthiest. It would be proof positive that kleptocracy is alive and well in a nation that has produced two among the top ten most corrupt leaders in modern history.

As Senior Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales (who administered the oath of office to the current president) states in her dissenting opinion,

The argument that Cojuangco was not a subordinate or close associate of the Marcoses is the biggest joke to hit the century.

If that is so, then the joke is well and truly on us!