The decentralization quandary


foto Ben Kritz

Over the past couple years I have made an effort to acquaint myself with business and civic interests in different parts of the country, because one of the common criticisms I sometimes hear—and for which I do not often have an effective rebuttal, to be honest about it—is that the political, economic, and intellectual leadership of this country is too “Manila-centric” in its perspective. What seems important here in the capital is often at odds with the priorities and problems in the greater part of the country, which is not news, of course; the disconnect between what is imposed on the rest of the country by Imperial Manila and what the rest of the country needs or wants has been a source of tension since the entire archipelago was first cobbled together under Spanish rule.

The problem has become even more acute under the administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, in the view of most of the people I’ve talked to on the subject (which includes groups of various levels of organization in Negros, Masbate, the Cordillera Region, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and elsewhere in Mindanao) and most point to the abuse of the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF), or “pork barrel,” as the reason why. Pork barrel funds have always been compromised by politics, and as a result, have always been an inefficient way to finance government projects, but President Aquino is seen as being the worst of the Philippines’ past four presidents because of his open use of the pork barrel as a means to punish ordinary citizens for opposing his party.

One director of a market coop in the Visayas (who understandably wished to remain anonymous) explained it this way: “With [former President Gloria]Arroyo, and even with [former President Joseph]Estrada, the way they went about it was, ‘Here are some pork barrel funds for this or that, remember where they came from the next time there’s an election.’ With Aquino, though, it’s ‘Support my LP [Liberal Party] candidates or else you get nothing.’ Both of those ways are wrong, I know. But Aquino’s way is like extortion. And then you people [meaning, ‘you commentators in Manila’] criticize us for ‘not voting wisely’ or ‘voting for personalities.’ But what choice do we have?”

Unfortunately, they have no choice at all at this point, which is why the idea of decentralizing government appeals to a lot of people. The general logic behind it is this: If responsibilities and resources that are now entirely in the hands of the national government were spread out among the provinces—making the local government units responsible for managing most of their direct needs, and giving them the financial resources to do it—then development and governance would be more responsive to the people and political leaders would be more accountable. Proponents of the idea point to the generally successful examples of federal systems around the world as evidence it could work here, places like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Germany and India. And the physical shape of the Philippines, being an archipelago, would seem to be better suited to a looser federal system than a centrally controlled unitary system, particular in view of the country’s polylingual culture.

The overall conclusion of the considerable amount of academic research that has been done on the comparison between federal and unitary systems does not necessarily favor one over the other. Federal systems are associated with greater policy innovation and reduced income inequality, while unitary systems are associated with lower levels of corruption and more stable macroeconomic management. The exceptions to the general advantages to both systems, however, are so numerous that making a choice based on academic generalities would certainly be unwise.

The idea of decentralization in the Philippine context presents us with something of a dilemma. Right now, the country needs to prioritize large-scale investment and trade; the full implementation of the Asean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) in 2015 is going to leave the Philippines at a serious disadvantage if it is not at least on a clear path to shifting from a largely consumer- and import-driven economy at that point, and in order to even find the beginning of that path, the country is going to have to engage in large-scale development of basic infrastructure. Those priorities are better supported by a more, rather than less centralized system. The deeply entrenched system of political dynasties in the country would also be strengthened by less centralization; besides being unpalatable to most of the population, research has found a close correlation between dynasticism and higher levels of corruption.

On the other hand, centralization has rendered some key priorities completely unmanageable. One of the areas that seems to cause the most friction is education; the almost-unanimous opinion of educators and education activists outside of Metro Manila is that micromanaging education on a national level is completely ineffective, unresponsive to local needs, in many cases culturally insensitive (such as the imposition of Tagalog as a “national language,” or the inclusion of Catholic doctrine in the public education curriculum), and overall reduces the entire education system to the “lowest common denominator,” lowering the value of the Philippines’ human capital. If, say local education advocates, the national Department of Education (DepEd) would confine itself to setting basic standards and managing the efficient distribution of budgets instead of reaching into classrooms to dictate the curriculum and methods on a line-by-line basis, teachers would be more motivated and innovative in meeting the needs of their students and the overall level of the education system’s performance would improve.

But even decentralizing some of the national government’s responsibilities in piecemeal fashion in the areas where it would be most effective—which is really the only way it could be accomplished because of the complexity of developing new revenue and administrative structures—is not without risk of inefficiency or abuse. Even under the current system, opportunities for corruption are widespread, as illustrated by two ongoing cases being followed by the Bicol Today—one in Albay that is yet to result in charges, and one in Sorsogon that has seen several local DepEd and teachers’ coop directors charged with syndicated estafa. Just as federalism would strengthen political dynasties, with all the negative connotations that entails, removing a layer of supervision over local agencies by decentralizing national agencies like DepEd, the Department of Health, or the Department of Public Works and Highways (the three that are mentioned most often by provincial experts) might not be such a good idea, or at the very least, gives some hint of just how big a job doing it properly will actually be.

If the national government was administering its various agencies in an effective, apolitical manner by utilizing the talents of trained and competent executives rather than cluelessly misplaced patronage beneficiaries, there would be no need to have the decentralization debate. But there is a need, because the national government is not doing its job effectively, if at all, and hasn’t been for a long time. The present administration has said, repeatedly, that it is not interested in having that debate, or any other that even remotely suggests a meaningful change to the status quo. But given the tone and volume of the discussion outside the walls of the ivory tower, the Aquino administration may soon not have a choice.


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