RAISED eyebrows seemed to be the only reaction from anyone to President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s appointment this past week of noted former senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan as “Presidential Adviser on Food Security and Agricultural Modernization,” and the skepticism is entirely deserved.
Four critical line agencies of the Department of Agriculture—the National Food Authority (NFA), National Irrigation Authority (NIA), Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) and Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA)—will now be the responsibility of someone who apparently has no plan or anything else resembling a confident conception of what he can or should do to improve the reliability and performance of these departments, whose outcomes are important to, well, just anyone who eats food in this country.
The immediate impression of the move was that it was a hastily-contrived plan to create a publicly-visible position for Pangilinan, a replacement for Department of Interior and Local Government and Chief Crime Scene Inspector Manuel “Mar” Roxas, the heretofore presumptive but now thoroughly toxic Liberal Party candidate for president in 2016.
To give the Liberal Party a little credit, they did in fact smell Roxas’ blood in the water some time ago and made an attempt to “create a candidate” with former senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson’s appointment as the Typhoon Yolanda “rehabilitation czar”.
The results of that experiment, however, have been disappointing in just about every way they could be, and so, with options limited by the President’s “never replace anyone for any reason, ever, and in fact, don’t even think about bringing the subject up” rule, an entirely new department had to be carved out to find a role for Attempt #2.
Pangilinan’s appointment casts the Aquino Administration in a bad light no matter how they spin the announcement of it. If he is what he appears to be—a replacement standard-bearer for the Liberal Party—then the Administration is rather irresponsibly playing politics with several key agencies.
If, on the other hand, the Administration’s explanation for Pangilinan’s appointment is taken at face value, it is an admission of management failure.
Making a determination that the Department of Agriculture is too big and too damaged by inefficiency and corruption to administer effectively would have been fine, four years ago; President Aquino would have been commended for coming to the conclusion then, because that is the sort of thing everyone was rather expecting him to do after he surfed into office on a wave of “hey, at least he’s not a crook, as far as we know” public sentiment.
This late in the game, however, Aquino owns whatever shortcomings are revealed in the vast government machinery at his command.
Even so, admitting one’s own strategy is a failure and is just making things worse can be admirable if it is followed by a decisive, proactive alternative, and there was a moment when Pangilinan’s appointment was first announced in which we might have been hopeful that a respectable course of action was being pursued.
Granted, Pangilinan is not noted for much else than having been in attendance in the Senate and being married to larger-than-life celebrity Sharon Cuneta, but he has a mostly positive image; he generally comes across as being more diplomatic and thoughtful than many of his Administration colleagues, and the fact that he spent most of his post-Senate free time tending his own little farm has a certain quaint relevance to his new role.
All the potential benefit of the doubt Pangilinan might have been granted, however, went right out the window the moment he started talking about his new job to the media.
As reported by this paper earlier in the week, Pangilinan described his new role thus: “The President said I am here to help clean up these agencies. So I should also address graft and smuggling,” he said. Pangilinan went on to explain that, “. . . the marching orders are clear: to clean it up, so we will do what we can, as best we can to help in that respect apart from, of course, the overall picture. Our main agenda is to find ways to improve the plight of farmers and fishermen.”
That is hardly good enough; that is, in fact, so far from being good enough that we would have all been better off if Pangilinan had just kept his mouth shut and said, “I’ll get back to you as soon as I figure out exactly what I’m dealing with”, because the agencies now under his care are facing some daunting challenges.
All four agencies, of course, are known or suspected to be riddled with graft, but that is really just the tip of the iceberg. The NFA is responsible for the staple that makes up 40 percent of the country’s diet, and which is going to be heavily affected by new trade regimes under Asean integration.
The country may have scored a slight victory with recent indications that its major trading partners will be willing to allow the Philippines to extend quantitative import restrictions under World Trade Organization rules for a couple more years, but that is only because the vast amount of rice that needs and will need to be imported for the foreseeable future makes the QR level irrelevant, meaning that price (and therefore livelihood) security for rice farmers will remain elusive unless massive, rapid developments and reforms are carried out.
And those will not be possible unless the NIA and FPA get their act together; in the case of the latter, that might just require replacing a lot of bad performers, but for the NIA, it is faced with managing an immediate drought situation within the next couple of months, and over the longer term, the very real possibility that the Philippines will hit the peak water barrier within the next 10-20 years.
The PCA might be a little brighter spot because coconut products are actually a viable export, but this potential is now threatened by an epidemic that is proving difficult to control, and of course, the massive loss of coconut production caused by last year’s Typhoon Yolanda.
With all due respect to Secretary Pangilinan, these are issues that demand a better approach than “I’ll see what I can do.”
The Department of Agriculture is a mess, and it’s a mess that’s gotten worse over the past four years. But a serious management problem is never fixed by applying more managers (as if the utter lack of accomplishment of the last “czar” appointed by Aquino wasn’t enough evidence of that), it is fixed by applying actual plans and processes.
Conducting a none-too-subtle campaign for a presidential election that is still two years away is probably not among them.