‘Sustain the outrage to logical conclusion’
In the furor that surrounded the unraveling of the pork barrel scam involving detained businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, an old friend of his complained to Cielito Habito, Inquirer columnist and former economic planning secretary.
“He said, ‘why all the fuss? The money had been spent anyway yet why are they making all this noise?’” Habito recalled at the inaugural Inquirer Conversations, a forum to discuss issues of public interest.
His words drew collective disapproval from a room full of Inquirer readers, including academics, retirees, writers and businessmen, who attended the forum on Wednesday at the newspaper’s head office in Makati City.
Habito himself was disappointed with his unnamed friend’s sentiment. “If a lot of Filipinos think this way, what will become of us as a country? We have come to that point wherein we just shrug our shoulders and never mind—people love this phrase—‘Let’s just move on,’” he said.
“But we have to sustain this. We have to carry it to its logical conclusion. Otherwise, people will never learn and by people, I mean people who are the perpetrators of this evil and those of us who allow that evil to happen,” Habito said.
First to break news
Echoing his point, Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan noted the role of the newspaper, the first to break the news on the Napoles scandal in a series of investigative reports, in the growing public clamor for the abolition of the pork barrel.
“The Inquirer has served as a catalyst for public action on this issue from the time we broke the story, and I hope that as Ciel said, we will sustain the energy and sustain the outrage,” said Pangalangan, a former University of the Philippines College of Law dean.
Inquirer CEO and president Alexandra Prieto-Romualdez said Wednesday’s forum was the first of a series of conversations that would take a deeper look into the day’s headlines.
“It’s only through a greater understanding of these events that we can develop and nurture our passions for change. And it is only through understanding that we can turn our passions into commitment and our commitment into action,” she said.
“We wrote about this [pork barrel] seven years ago, and it was really jolting to see that in some ways some things have not changed,” Romualdez said.
She added that the holding of Inquirer Conversations was in keeping with the newspaper’s vision to be a catalyst for social progress and change.
Finding a better way
In his presentation, titled “Pork and its Discontents, Finding a Better Way,” Habito sought to put in context the entire discussion on pork barrel in all its incarnations from the defunct Countrywide Development Fund to the befouled Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
He spoke at length about the Philippines’ economic indicators, or what he called his “PTK test,” referring to price stability (“presyo”), jobs (“trabaho”) and income (“kita”), all of which were now pointing to a “narrow, shallow and hollow growth.”
Which means the growth “benefits a few sectors; the growth sectors have weak linkages to the rest of the economy and there is low domestic value-added export,” he said.
Although the Philippines has indeed grown considerably under President Aquino’s leadership and partly due to greater investor confidence, Habito described it as a jobless growth, “in fact, a job-killing, poverty-increasing growth.”
He further compared the country’s situation with that of its neighbors, including Thailand and Indonesia, saying how badly the country was lagging behind until recently.
Agriculture hardly grew
Habito noted that one sector that had scarcely grown at all was agriculture, not coincidentally the favorite area of perpetrators of graft, with much of the pork barrel funneled to bogus nongovernment organizations coursed through the Department of Agriculture.
The rationale for the existence of pork barrel was that it supposedly “enables representatives to identify projects for communities that local government units (LGUs) cannot afford,” he said, quoting President Aquino.
But Habito said the size of the LGUs’ internal revenue allotment need not be a binding constraint, as to necessitate lawmakers stepping in to fund projects.
He said there were consultative budget mechanisms in place, including regional and local development councils (RDCs and LDCs). “There are mechanisms in law, without having to ask lawmakers to play God as if he was in the best position to know what is needed,” Habito said.
But in actual practice, he said, the suggestions of RDCs were seldom considered in the actual budget deliberations, “which is why they are called paper tigers.”
“LGUs rarely convene or make proper use of LDCs and local executives are not keen to share governance with their true bosses. They’re not particularly hospitable to participation by civil society,” Habito said.
But he said participatory budgeting was actually working very well in other places. He cited the example of Porto Alegre in Brazil, which pioneered such a budget mechanism in 1989 “with a process that involves tens of thousands of citizens.”
He said participatory budgeting had spread across 140 municipalities in Brazil, hundreds of Latin American cities and dozens of cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
In the Philippines, Habito said there were also moves to institute “bottom-up budgeting,” which sought to ensure the inclusion of funding requirements for the development needs of 1,233 focus cities and municipalities in the budget proposals of relevant national agencies.
“In my view, you don’t need legislators meddling in the budget at the micro- or even mesolevel,” Habito said.
So what will life be without pork?
Habito spoke of his “dream world without pork barrel” in which “legislators will focus on lawmaking; candidates will not invest huge sums just to be elected; and where worthy candidates are more likely to win.”
In that dream world, he added, “local executives are recognized for convening and using their LDCs and those who don’t are sanctioned by the DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government).”
President Aquino may have decided that the 2014 budget will have zero PDAF, but whether there will be no more pork barrel remains a question mark, Habito said.
“We’ve heard that song before … . I don’t trust that mechanism at all, of putting money in the hands of congressmen, not literally, but giving them discretion to identify projects,” he said.
During the open forum, Inquirer opinion editor Rosario Garcellano asked Habito if he thought Aquino, who enjoyed high approval ratings, lacked good advisers.
“I hate to comment publicly on what I think about the President and his advisers. What I can observe though is in fact, as in any president, there is a variety of perspectives and sentiments that is brought to him. In the end, you may have the best advisers but you have advisers with contrary views. It’s really up to the President himself,” Habito said.
“I’d like to think he’s done more good things than things that are open to question. I will have to rely on that to hope that we can have definitive change under his leadership. So, the only way to move forward is to push for sustaining this advocacy,” he said.
Habito said the news agenda should continue focusing on the pork barrel scam.
“This should be no flavor of the month. We need to hold on to it. Some people said [the fighting in Zamboanga] was meant as a distraction to stop people from talking about the Napoles scam,” he said.
“Well, the Inquirer is not allowing that to happen. This is the kind of sustained pressure we need people to keep giving, and it’s a challenge the Inquirer is facing head-on,” he said.
“We should not have the attitude of my friend, that since the money has been spent, let’s just move on. This is not the kind of attitude that will lead to a great nation,” he said.
“I wish to exhort all of us to play our little role because things won’t happen automatically. Even if we have the best president, it won’t amount to much unless we, as the true bosses, are moved to action,” Habito said, eliciting applause from the audience.
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