Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Two Cases of Government Responsiveness

With the bad things that happened with government service delivery these days – from tanim-bala to market fires due to bad cables – it is easy to be swayed to the opinion that this government can never do right, and that everything in the Philippine government, whether local or national, are all wrong.  If facebook posts and tweets are measures of the opinion of the “connected” Filipino nation (which, by the way, comprises only around 40% of the total population), it  seems that the general sentiment is that this country is so badly-governed that entertainment is a happy escape from the current mess we are in. 

But often we forget that there are also many good things going on in this country’s government.  I do not want to be an apologist of the government but I want to speak of two experiences where I can say that as a citizen, I have benefitted from government’s willingness to protect the interest of its citizens and from government’s responsiveness to an ordinary citizen’s questions and concerns.

Case 1: The Case of Smart Communications
I am a post-paid subscriber of Smart Communications for almost 10 years now and I have not had significant complaints regarding billing until 2013. I went to South Africa on a business trip and when I came back I was surprised to get a billing of around 80K Php when I got back because of data charges.  I wrote to Smart that I have not used data while abroad and the giant telco that it is, it never cared to reply.

So I wrote to DTI’s Consumer Protection and Advocacy Division with this long letter, which explains in full detail my allegation. I was prompted to seek the assistance of DTI because Smart never cared about my rights as a consumer and threatened to cut off my subscription unless I paid, and that if I continue to question the charges, they will hand my account to the legal department for collection and appropriate legal action.

The letter above is self-explanatory.  When CPAD received the letter, it forwarded my concern to the National Telecommunications Commission, who has jurisdiction over the complaint.  Smart responded with a call from its customer relations and sent letters implying that they are doing an investigation.  For more than 10 months, Smart slept on my complaint and at some points insisted on the validity of their chargers and cutting my subscription.  For the many times that Smart did, I wrote to CPAD for support. CPAD again wrote to NTC copying Smart and my line came alive again. This occurred for more than twice until I wrote the following letter to NTC.

In the subsequent letters related to this one, I wrote to the DTI and NTC that I would like to seek advice as to what legal action I can take. It was during this time that Smart responded positively, and finally erased the charges, saying it was goodwill reduction. To this day, I still maintain that I did not use data services as I use WIFI connection for data tasks in all my trips overseas.  Smart does not have the right to charge me, so they do not have anything to reduce. 

I should credit CPAD for the responsiveness though NTC fell short of my expectations.  It is important to be mindful, that it’s not only government that has the capacity to oppress. As my experience suggested, business giants are more positioned to disadvantage consumers.  This even excludes how Telco companies sell our data even without our consent.

Case 2: The case of Tagbilaran City Government
Two months ago, I wrote in this blog about the failure of the City Government of Tagbilaran to use its Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund.  The blog entry might have reached the office of the city mayor that weeks after, Matthew Nemenzo, the mayor’s Chief of Staff emailed me the following:

I emailed Mr. Nemenzo several times after this, clarifying for example some items in the email above. Mr. Nemenzo was very responsive, and even corrected some of the information that he already gave.  It just seemed surreal to me, that a blog writer like me, who expected that no one reads his entries, got the attention of the highest public official in the city.

I should say that this is the first time that this happened to me, after writing many times about issues concerning Bohol. I should commend the city administration of Mayor Yap for being responsive though I also recommend that more proactive discussions should be done with civil society organizations on issues and concerns concerning Tagbilaran city residents be done in the future.

According to Besley and Burgess (2000:1), “a more informed and politically active electorate strengthens incentives for governments to be responsive”.  My experience provides evidence that such is so.  The implication therefore is that when we want to complain to government, we need to bring with us information on why we complain, the basis of what we are complaining about, and the reason why government should respond.  Armed with these tools, only a government who does not want to be accountable will turn a deaf ear. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Some Questions on Justice

Image courtesy of http://www.sacrecoeur-nsw.org.au/images/SCAImages/People/Social%20Justice/social-justice-300x284.gif
The “twisted ruling” of the Supreme Court, granting bail to Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile for a non-bailable case, and purportedly finding a constitutional basis to do so, showed once again how justice bends to the will of the powerful and the mighty.  One part of the story is the ability of the rich to engage better lawyers and build a stronger case (Lopez, 2009). Another part of the story is the potential for justices to exhibit partiality in exchange for a sum of money, or in order to side with the powers that be.

This brings me to an important question that I think every Boholano needs to answer – What do we mean by just?  When do we say that something is just?  How can we say that justice has been served?  I will not attempt to answer these questions here, but add some more, using recent events in Bohol as a basis for framing the questions.

  • Question 1:  Is the killing of supposedly “drug pushers” justified? 
Several people were killed last year in the province and their murders remain unsolved to this day. Radio news commentators talk about these victims as involved in the drug trade and their deaths caused by internal conflicts among people engaged in the same business. The general sentiment of the people who called the news anchors in one morning show was that the death of “drug pushers” was justified and that a trial was no longer necessary – expressing dissatisfaction of the state of our criminal justice system.

This seeming lack of care of lost lives prompted Boholano cultural icon Marianito Luspo to write a short play entitled “Sa Umaabot nga Kangitngit” (The Impending Darkness). The play talks about an old woman and her granddaughter discussing about the murders happening in the community, with the old woman saying that the murder of suspected drug traders are justified, until she knew that her son and daughter-in-law were one of the victims.

  • Question 2:  Is it just for a local government unit not to spend disaster risk reduction and management funds?

The Bol-anon United Sectors Working for the Advancement of Community Concerns, as part of the outputs of the Enhancing Citizen Engagement with Open Government Data project, found out that only 11.83% of the City Government of Tagbilaran’s 61.8 million annual budget on disaster risk reduction and management in 2014 was spent. Further, they also found out that the 41M budget (part of the total DRRM total budget) on mitigation was also unspent for the same year. 

BUSWACC argued that the amount could have been spent for trainings on disaster preparedness, assistance for those affected by recent earthquake and typhoon (e.g. Senyang), or for local-planning on disaster risk reduction and management.  The fund could even be used for vulnerability assessment, given that the vulnerability of the city to natural disasters is high.  The Department of Interior and Local Government requires that 70% of the funds should be spent on early warning systems and preparedness equipments. The fund can also be used to spend for trainings, information campaigns and even post-disaster livelihood assistance.   

What do these questions (and our answers to them) highlight?

First, that most of the things that happen in our lives, at the personal and communitarian levels, present opportunities to be just or unjust. A tricycle ride, a conversation with a friend, a stroll at the park, raise questions regarding justice. John Rawls, one of those academics influential in framing social justice as a contract, defines justice in the spirit of fairness.  Thus, questions like are we giving the tricycle driver a fare fair enough fits into this conversation, and whether a fare imposed on the basis of a law or regulation is an important question in this respect.  

Secondly, how we view situations and how we act on them indicates the merger of our own personal views and the wider aspirations of the society we live in.  Like the justices deciding on Enrile's petition to bail, our decisions are biased to what our interests are, but also conditioned by the pressures we see from entities external to us. Thus, fairness may not seem to matter to some people until they become a victim of unjust structures.

Finally, justice is not a noun, it is a verb. By saying this, what I mean is that our action or inaction creates just or unjust situations.  A person with the capacity to dissent but chooses not to despite the oppressive condition he is in is unjust.  A local government unit with funds to spend for the good but does otherwise is unjust. A government that uses power to silence complaints is also unjust.  It is how we act or react to the events that happen in our lives that determines how just or unjust we have become.        

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Concrete Road to Nowhere

First day of the year 2015, Arlen and I took a walk from our house in San Isidro, Tagbilaran City, Bohol, to the city public market in Dao to exercise and at the same time buy the week’s provision of fish, vegetables and rootcrops.  For quite a time, the road that connects Dao proper and Dao Lanao intersecting the national highway going to Corella has been closed to traffic. We have used this road before when it was still surfaced with asphalt.  We knew that the other half of the road which leads to the city public market in Dao was almost completed that we wondered what took the project so long to be finished and opened for public use.

So that we would have answers to our questions, we walked through the road. Apparently that portion near the national highway has not been touched yet, for one primary reason – there is a claimant of the property that has long been used as a public road.  After a well concreted road section, probably completed for months already, a makeshift fence stood,  indicating the words “private property”.  We climbed the fence (and we were sure we would have been liable of trespassing) – at the same time that we realized the danger of the action we also realized that the road that has been used for years as public road is apparently, private property. 

It baffled me first why the private claim over the road only surfaced now that the road is being concreted and why not before when it was still asphalted.  But it baffled me more why in the first place, the government proceeded with a road concreting project without resolving first the Road Right of Way (RROW) issue.

I was trying to get the perspective of people that own the property to be able to get the full story, but unfortunately, I was not given meaningful response to write about here.  I admit I also failed to get the name of the road project and who funds it. In the upcoming days I will get this information and update this post.

I tried also "googling" for road information and whether local media has picked this news up. Unfortunately, or maybe I was not just persistent enough, there seems to be no "web presence" of this road project pictured above.

According to Lalisan and Torralba (2012)

The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) policy dictates that all national government road infrastructure projects, either funded using government funds or entered through public-private partnership, must acquire ownership of the road right of way before the issuance of the Notice of Award defined in the IROW Manual.

They further contended, referring to the province of Agusan del Sur, that

Right-of-way or ownership of the road right of way has been a long-standing problem and remains one of the hurdles in  infrastructure development in the (Philippines) since there is no policy or guideline that (local officials) can use in the acquisition of road right of way except to negotiate for donation. While the (local engineers) can ably do so in securing donors, it is constrained to take further steps to formalize the acquisition through the appropriate legal route due to budgetary limitations. 

It seemed that Bohol is suffering the same fate and this is why the road has become a concrete road to nowhere.  For those with information on this road project, will you please let us know where this will lead to?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Analysing Disaster Preparedness in Maribojoc

The destroyed Abatan Bridge that connects Maribojoc to Tagbilaran City
Maribojoc is a fourth class municipality in the province of Bohol. Located 30 kilometers southwest of Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, the municipality is composed of 22 barangays whose residents are primarily engaged in farming and fishing.  The municipality is home to one of the oldest watchtowers in the country and one of the oldest Spanish churches in the province.

Maribojoc has a total of 20,491 people with a population density of 2.6 persons per hectare as of 2010.  Urban population consists of 26.61% of the total town population.  The population is predominantly young, with 30% of the total population aged 0-14 years old.  The productive force of the municipality is 60%.

Land formation of the municipality ranges from sea-level to very steep slopes. The highest elevation of the municipality is 304 meters above sea level.  The municipality only has around 18.99% that do not experience erosion.  Moderate to severe erosions occur in the areas with very rolling to very steep slopes.  While the municipality does not have a sewerage system, water accumulated in the terrain drain towards Maribojoc Bay on its southwest side and the Abatan River on its southeastern boundary. 

A 7.2 MW magnitude earthquake struck the province of Bohol at 8:12 in the morning of 15 October 2013.  While the earthquake affected the whole Visayas region, more particularly the island provinces of Bohol and Cebu, the epicentre of the quake was located in Sagbayan town, 46.7 kilometers from Maribojoc. This was the deadliest earthquake that hit the Philippines in 23 years. In the case of Bohol, the last earthquake experienced by the province was in 1990.

The damage caused by the earthquake to the Bohol province was estimated at USD50 billion. A total of 809 people were confirmed dead, 877 people were injured and 8 people were reported missing.  In the case of Maribojoc, while a municipal-level damage calculation is not available, several key structures of the municipalities, including its municipal hall, public market, centuries-old church were all damaged.  Several houses were damaged, and the bridged that connected the town to Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, became unpassable that people had to take boats to cross to go to the City. This also affected significantly the provision of disaster assistance and the delivery of relief goods to affected families.  The municipality lost electricity and water provision for more than a week after the earthquake.

It was apparent that the municipal government of Maribojoc was unprepared for the earthquake, despite the fact that geological studies have already pointed out the high possibility of the island province of Bohol and the town of Maribojoc to earthquakes of this magnitude.  The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) has already identified the East Bohol Fault, the only known earthquake generator in the island and is located 40 kilometers southwest of Maribojoc. Bohol is also considered one of the seismologically active geographic areas in the country and the last earthquake that the province experienced was only in the 1990.

However, a review of the comprehensive development plan of the municipality indicates that this possibility is not factored in its planning processes.  In the preparation of the Maribojoc Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plan of 2012, for example, topics discussed prior to the planning process were on typhoons, floods, and other water-related disasters and lesser on issues as earthquake and other related seismological hazards.  But hazards and risks related to earthquakes were not factored, in such a way that when the bridge connecting the municipality to Tagbilaran City collapsed, alternative transport systems were not in place and made available easily. This indicates weaknesses in planning for disaster risk reduction as also pointed in earlier study on subnational approaches on disaster management (Benson, 2009). 

The Need for an Integrated View of Disaster Preparedness

The case of Maribojoc resonate with arguments about the lack of capacity of local government units to prepare against disasters, as indicated in the researches mentioned above.  But the capacity of LGUs to plan for and address needs of communities when disaster occurs is also affected by a lot of factors. The results of this study point to the following factors below:
  •       Nature of the disaster – typhoons have early warning systems that can be disseminated widely prior to the occurrence of the disaster.  This is not something that is available to earthquakes and other related seismic events that can catch LGUs by surprise. 
  •       Certainty of occurrence - While in Bohol, the existence of a fault line already warns LGUs and communities that an earthquake can occur, and given the occurrence of earthquakes in its recent past, the certainty that an earthquake can occur cannot be predicted.  
  •          Adequacy of scientific infrastructure and systems – mapping disaster prone areas, identifying population at risk, locating safe locations for evacuation, and assessing earthquake resilient buildings, are capacities that require adequate infrastructure and system at the local level.
  •          Political will on the part of the leaders – Relocation of households at risk, or forcing them to evacuate to safer areas, require political leadership (see for example Ebay 2013). 
  •            Cooperation of local communities – disaster preparedness is not just about preparedness at the local government level.  Individuals and households should contribute into the process (see Luna 2007) by, for example, cooperating with the government in situations that call for forced evacuation.  Households, in order to cope with post-disaster resource scarcity, should prepare packed provisions that can withstand several days after the occurrence of the disaster so that they can be adequately nourished while awaiting relief operations.     
As such, apart from lack of technical and financial capacity, there is a need to look beyond the local government itself and consider several factors in disaster risk prevention and management. In a review of DRM practices across Asia and the Philippines, it has been found out that less emphasis has been made on disaster prevention as compared to disaster response. Further, it argues that even when natural disasters are seemingly caused by natural events, there is a human hand that influences the outcomes when disaster occurs (Thomas et al 2013).  Governments that do not strictly prohibit building of structures along risk areas, or households that insist on building their houses in areas that are considered flood-prone, for example, are variables that show the human hand as a cause of deaths during disasters. Thus, it is not just about nature, it is also about local actors, institutional arrangements, governance mechanisms and active citizenship that can exacerbate or reduce the impact of disaster to people and communities. Beyond distal causes, there are proximal causes of casualties in disasters that define the resiliency of communities and their capacity to bounce back after a great tragedy.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Earthquake, SMS, and Social Media

Image courtesy of http://www.sjp.com
A seminal work by Elder and others (2013) entitled “Information Lives of the Poor: Fighting Poverty with Technology” discusses in clear prose and through illustrative examples the promise of information and communication technology (ICT) in building the lives of the world’s poor.  It starts with a foreword by Mohammad Yunus, Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which highlights the Grameen Village Phone program that afforded poor people with access to telecommunication facilities while at the same time providing income for poor village women in Bangladesh.

It highlights, among other things, how technology has penetrated society and even poor households.  Use of mobile phones, for example, spiked beginning in 2002, surpassing all other forms of technologies like television, personal computer, and the internet, a fact also pointed out in the paper. Its attendant effects were also highlighted in several studies apart from those mentioned in the book - about how network coverage impacts positively on employment (Klonner et al 2008), how ICT helps in achieving economic growth (OECD 2005), and how mobile banking helped increase remittances (Mendes et al 2007). 

The power of ICT is argued to have more pervasive effects in information dissemination. For example, studies show that  mobile phones bring better prices for fish (Jensen, 2007) and social media is used to disseminate disaster warnings and post-disaster response (Shklovski et al 2008).  ICT, especially in the context of social networking, has significantly revolutionized how people access and consume news. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based in Oxford University in a study in 2011 (Newman) pointed out that in the UK, use of social media has become one of the rising sources of traffic for the websites of news organizations.  Facebook and Twitter have become a way to spread information from a news agency, by the power of the “share” and “like” buttons and the skilful use of the “hash tag”. 

I was in Manila when the earthquake struck Bohol in 15 October.  I got the news first hand through a text message from our companion in the house.  While my family was dealing with fear of a first-hand earthquake experience in the succeeding hours, I was in a meeting, browsing through FB posts to get a glimpse of what has happened after the quake.  Right after the earthquake, I called my wife to hear how things were. Without mobile phones and social media, I would not have had the information that would help me stay and feel calm despite the tragedy.

But not all is good news with phones and the internet.  Commentaries have pointed out how social media contributes to misreporting (see Washington Post, for example). An edited volume compiled by Anne Mintz entitled “Web of Deceit:  Misinformation and Manipulation in the Age of Social Media” (2012), shows how social media can be used to intentionally misinform.  These realities bring in an important normative question – with information flooding through ICT channels every second of the day, whose story should we believe in? Whose version of the truth should we “share” and “like”?

It must be important to point out that even without social media, the internet, or mobile phones, misinformation and mis-education can still be widespread.  The question presented here does not absolve news agencies from pursuing a particular story with a biased frame or the spin doctors who creatively deceive the public through wilful machinations.  But the power of social media to spread wrong information exponentially is dangerous, especially in a context where a lot of people are connected through a mesh of networks using ICT.

I remember very well how text messages sent panic to people in Tagbilaran City in the recent 15 October earthquake. A text message warned people that water, presumably caused by an earthquake-induced tsunami, has already reached J.A. Clarin Street.  Two days after, a post in Facebook escalated the story that an 8.0 magnitude quake is expected to hit Cebu. A week after, somebody else made the claim that a new volcano was discovered in Bohol.  A ‘forward message’, ‘like’, or ‘share’ act of one person can send panic to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people who have already suffered enough.

Several people have called for greater responsibility in the use of social media.  For example, before posting and sharing, we must do some fact checking (see Jennifer Dunn) because the content that we link to our profiles is our responsibility.   Others suggest that we should respect social media and not treat it as a toy or a medium for our jokes (see Scott Kleinberg) – by using it we acknowledge our great responsibility.  Still others say that what we post builds our online personality (see Chris Syme), and thus, posting something that is a hoax, reflects our lack of time to read and check facts and our propensity to believe anything that comes our way.

It does seem then, that ethics is social media rests on the one that reads and shares, and much less on the one that creates content.  I remember for example the coverage of Maribojoc mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr.’s incident with the Philippine Red Cross coming from the country’s reputable news agencies.  Interaksyon’s story was entitled “Bohol mayor stopped relief distribution, wanted goods turned over to him”,  while that of the Philippine Star was “Bohol mayor to Red Cross: We don’t need you”.  The Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a similar story line with a lead “Bohol mayor drives out Red Cross team”.   The news went viral in social media and nasty comments were made by several people who read the news and clicked “share”.  Stories and days later, we learned that such was not the real story and a certain degree of misunderstanding of language, context, and representation was apparent.  However, the mayor was already cursed, berated, humiliated for days.

If I follow Jennifer Dunn’s suggestion of fact checking, I might still, like the others, click “share”.  After all, the story was one of the banner stories of three of the country’s leading and supposedly credible news agencies.  The story is not something of a joke and if I believed that it was true then it is my greater responsibility, as what Scott Kleinberg would say, to share it.  And if I want to build my reputation as a concerned citizen and a compassionate other, then Chris Syme would probably approve if I flood all my accounts with that story. A story repeated several times by different people and sources creates that illusion of truth.

This is what social media does to a story.  The number of times a story gets liked, commented on, and shared, builds traction and credence.  In several instances, a falsity becomes truth, a half-truth a complete one, and a paid opinion the sentiment of the majority.  But how do we exempt ourselves from this viscous process when we are limited in our capacity to distinguish fact from fiction?

I take inspiration from a song I learned in Kindergarten.

“Peepep the small jeep is running down the street.
Stop, look and listen, stop, look and listen.”

Stop. No need to rush to click that button.  That somebody who said that he’d rather be first than right is no longer popular.

Look.....for other sources elsewhere. Verify as much as you can. If people are saying the same story at the same time, that does not mean they are right. So look and look. Be mindful of who is saying what.

Listen.....to yourself whether what was said there matches your philosophy of things and your outlook in life.  Ask yourself “what use will it be for me and for humanity if I comment on this one or share this in my page?”

If content creators are not responsible, we should at least be.  

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bohol Will Rise

Image courtesy of Bangon Bohol.
I was not in Bohol when the 7.2 earthquake hit the island in the morning of 15 October 2013.  Like most working weeks, and like several Boholanos unable to find job within the province, I was at the RCBC building along Ayala Avenue, preparing for a meeting with my contract manager at AusAID.  Like the Boholanos back home, that morning was the same as all other mornings – people woke up, took breakfast, did some household chores, read the papers, tended to farm animals, took a bath, went to church, reported for work. Then the ground shook.  That brief moment, that fearsome few seconds that has devastated centuries-old churches, destroyed many homes, traumatized children, damaged livelihood and business investments, and made useless several public infrastructure, can only be described by those who were there. While I was able to go home and experience the aftershocks days later, my own feeling of insecurity and fear is nothing compared to those who were there that very moment, those who ran for their lives, and those who watched as the world around them started to crumble.

Minutes and hours later, radio and TV were replete with reportage on the effects of the earthquake.  The quake did not only jolt Bohol but also the neighbouring island province of Cebu.  I watched as how reporters filmed destroyed churches, buildings, structures and interviewed local people.  Reports on isolated towns, number of deaths, and appeal for help came next.  The face and form of the tragedy is everywhere, the sense of desperation apparent in people’s faces.  Social media was flooded with status updates and tweets on the tragedy.  I was dumbfounded.  I was in a state of denial.  As I was far from home, I convinced myself that my family are okay, that the Boholanos are fine, that this event will just come to pass and people will recover.

They say that a crisis or tragedy can reveal the best and the worst in us.  I have seen many of my friends, despite fear of their safety and that of their family, rose to become bearers of hope.  People put up websites, coordinated relief operations, monitored events and did information dissemination. Others, even those living in other countries held charity events to raise funds.  Business groups joined in the relief operation, even airlines take in relief goods for free and courier companies accept money remittances to Bohol free of charge. Government and church groups, student associations, people and groups previously unaffiliated became bound by the same cause, to help Bohol and the Boholanos rise from the devastation. The Boholano ceased to be a victim and quickly became a survivor for others. 

Heart-warming stories of everyday heroism flooded news and social media – athletes ferrying people across a wide river, netizens posting information of those not yet reached by relief goods, companies distributing water and tents, professionals offering post-trauma counselling and therapy. Even victims, still needing help, refused relief goods so that others who had not received theirs can also benefit. They even managed to post thank you signs for the help they received.  While negative stories also circulated around – like how relief goods distribution became politicized or how victims hoarded goods, and people disagreed about how to best move forward, these never eclipsed the stories of how the Boholano started to hope and become a source of hope for others.

Two weeks had passed and in between aftershocks, planning sessions among those still willing to help were held.  One group is coordinating a medical mission. Another group plans a post-earthquake happy day for kids.  A classmate in college was talking about buying hollow-blocks making machines and extending credit to start-ups so the latter can have alternative livelihood after the quake and become sources of cheaper materials for construction. Inspection visits to churches were done so that restoration can be planned and started soon. The province was abuzz with efforts to build again what was lost; a new dawn is in the horizon.

Sadly, I failed to be part of all these.  

My guilt of not sharing that dreadful moment with my wife and kids and not being able to fly right after because of a workshop I was tasked to facilitate (that cannot be put off as hotels and flight tickets have already been booked), grounded me to home. To my wife and kids, this was my best apology – and my presence was needed by my family whose house has just been damaged, and badly in need of a temporary shelter.  I also cannot leave my son who turns pale every aftershock, as he was taking a bath when the earthquake shook the house, making him scamper for safety outside, naked and wet.   While my family’s experience is of no measure to the hundreds of others who lost a house or kin, I just thought that my place at that time, though how selfish it would sound, was to be with the people who relied on me for strength. 

So this piece is dedicated heartily, to the many souls I know from near or far – Gibo, Doris, Fr. Harold, Hedz, Nep, Liza, Reg, Fr. Roland, Nino, Fr. Warly, Maricel, Patpat, Cynthia, Charlie, Andy, Engr. Willy, Cheryl, Lut, Mitzi, Mae Anne, Sis. Joy, Edik, Julie Ann, Kit, Linda, Tia Flong, John, Sir Nes, Franco, Bagi, Melissa, Mae, and many more, who have risen above the tragedy to become sources of comfort in this time of need.  Your example shines; you remind us that in a situation of insecurity, we can offer others a sense of safety; that while hungry, we can still feed a multitude; that while in a state of devastation, we can still offer a hand to rebuild.

Bohol will rise. Because you, them, all of us, will work together to make Bohol well again.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Power and Danger of Discretion: PDAF in the Local Context

Image courtesy of Inquirer.

“One noticeable feature of modern legal systems is the extent to which power is conferred upon government officials and agencies to be exercised at their discretion, according to policy considerations, rather than according to precise legal standards.”  (Galligan, 1990)

The past month, after the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal surfaced in Philippine political debate, considerable media space has been allotted to discuss the value, or conversely and more strongly, the evil of the PDAF.  A congressional inquiry is currently being conducted, purportedly in aid of legislation that oftentimes seemed like some person’s show.  A whistleblower seemed to enjoy the media attention with a kind of sinister smile, sounding like saying “come on; do not act as if you do not know this.” A senator accused of plunder chastised himself by saying nothing else is good in this government and that should be enough evidence to not point fingers at them. The PDAF events, occurring at different locations – in court, in the legislative chambers, in the streets, in the minds of people – seem like a Shakespearian comedy, that watching, or living within the plot of misfortune, one cannot help but burst into a dry laugh.

Several of our top academics and intellectuals lend very insightful comments to this spectacle. A scholar I came to know at one point in one of my out-of-country conference trips, and one of those I consider very politically astute but pragmatically optimist at the same time, Ronald Mendoza, argued that PDAF kills our democracy.  He said that “Pork fuels our democracy’s vicious cycle—of poor people who depend on it for help, and politicians who ingratiate themselves to less informed voters and strengthen their stranglehold on power by disbursing it with little accountability.”  Randy David, on the other hand, said that “pork is never good in a political system dominated by insatiable swines”.  Solita Monsod analysing the statements of P-noy’s statements argued that  “ P-Noy actually starts by affirming that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy,” and that enabling our representatives to identify projects for their communities that otherwise were not affordable was a “worthy goal.”

In the background of these arguments is a word that is highly objectionable, not only in politics, but in business as well - DISCRETION.  Giving one person with a large responsibility too much discretion is giving him so much power.  In the literature on internal control, it is argued that you have to segregate duties in the use and administration of funds. When I was teaching auditing at Holy Name University, I used the mnemonic word CARE, to emphasize how CARE of business funds should be exercised, and this applies more importantly to public funds as well. In an ideal scenario, no one person or entity should be given the power to be the Custodian of resources, to Authorise its use, to Record the transactions involving its utilisation, and to Execute the utilisation of resources all at the same time (though later on, they removed Execution in the standards, I still argue for its inclusion as part of the four incompatible functions).  In the case of PDAF, a merger of around two incompatible functions became deadly – legislators Authorise the budget, and later has the authority to how to Execute it. When not scrutinize, and when hidden behind names of bogus projects and self-commissioned non-government organizations, he can spend public funds on himself.

The PDAF case is not only about a violation of internal control policies (or an override of it). It is also a classic case of what Galligan highlighted as a government where leaders exercise power at their discretion.  It is also a case of breach of legislative powers on executive functions, though how nicely its political language is framed to avoid this description.  One cannot argue that PDAF is consequentially good, because it is inherently wrong.

So while activists are barking at national legislators to give up their pork, I was pre-occupied with the question whether the same kind of discretion is given to local legislators.

In the last couple of months, I reviewed, as part of my research work, the municipal and provincial budgets of around 20 local government units across the country.  There are a few budget account titles that caught my attention and these were normally labelled with fancy names like the ones I enumerate below:

  • Assistance to barangays
  • Assistance to non-government organizations
  • Assistance to municipalities
  • Assistance to cooperatives
  • Donations

I looked at the process of how these were used. Apparently, this general-sounding budget figure is ‘allocated’ to provincial or municipal legislators, who request the amount in the same way that senators and congressmen do.  It is like your PDAF, in its more down-scaled version, and in the context of the local, but nevertheless advances the same clientelistic political effect of the national pork, and can also be a subject of abuse.

So I would like to call local activists to look at the local budgets.  Look for terms (a) to (e) above. Ask government officials how this is disbursed.  If you are concerned of issues in the national level, you should also be asking questions on issues closer to home.