CABINET Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. has finally broken his silence on the tussle over rice importation, but only after emerging victorious in his well-publicized row with the administrator of the National Food Authority (NFA), Jason Aquino.
The conclusion of the rice dispute appears to be a compromise – the government will pursue a G2P, or government-to-private scheme in which private rice traders will be able to import grains through foreign governments.
Evasco and the rest of the NFA Council favored more private rice imports through the minimum access volume (MAV) scheme, in which grains shipments came in at lower tariffs up to a certain volume.
Aquino wanted a government-to-government (G2G) deal, and even defied the NFA Council, the body authorized by law to determine policy on rice imports, which had ordered the MAV scheme extended beyond a February deadline.
Even as Aquino wanted to be strict on the MAV scheme, ostensibly to protect Filipino rice farmers from cheap imports, The Manila Times had found that for some favored importers, the rules could be bent. Last month’s sacking of a Malacañang undersecretary under Evasco over this suspicious pretext of protecting farmers is unfortunate.
There is no denying, however, that Evasco had his way and was able to put Aquino in his place as the implementer of the policy pronouncements of the NFA Council.
The wisdom of the NFA Council’s decision is clear. Which option does not expose the government to risk, is more transparent (therefore less prone to corruption), and will better address the needs of ordinary Filipino consumers, especially the poor?
With the private sector in the picture, the G2P scheme will be subject to the usual government procurement rules and thus involve competitive bidding.
G2G deals, including related contracts like shipping, are not covered by procurement rules and can be done through negotiated bids, which are opaque and prone to graft. These deals in effect mean throwing good money after bad, as the Philippine government contracts a loan from its foreign counterpart, which only adds to the country’s debt.
In addition to dropping G2G and adopting G2P, the NFA Council will now require private importers to allocate 25 to 30 percent of their import quotas to less costly varieties, which ordinary consumers should be able to afford.
Media reports of rising prices and low inventories at rice warehouses added pressure on the government to finally allow private traders to import more rice. The NFA, it should be noted, is required to maintain a rice buffer stock of 15 days at any given time and 30 days during lean months.
There are a few lessons here. First, government decision-making should be collegial, as shown by the actions of the NFA Council, which is composed, among others, of representatives from the Department of Finance, the central bank, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the National Economic and Development Authority. Surely, the preferences of one individual cannot override the wider perspective that informs the decisions of an inter-agency body.
Second, public interest should be upheld at all times, as the President himself has declared on many occasions. There was no rhyme or reason for the insistence on G2G imports, especially after Aquino sought to stop the MAV scheme in which importations came in at no cost to the taxpayer.
Third, government functionaries should not tinker with policy, especially on rice, where a misstep could lead to hungry stomachs.