With the surrender of accused pork-barrel scam operator Janet Lim-Napoles to President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Wednesday, many Filipinos breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude that the corruption, at least the congressional kind, will finally be addressed in earnest. Suspect arrested, case closed.
We wish. Those who think the pork barrel corruption problem will go away or even just significantly reduced with Napoles’s surrender and Aquino’s reform package, there’s a Antarctic real estate agent these believers might want to meet. Seriously, those who really want to lick corruption had better say goodbye to a few myths whipped up by recent media coverage.
Myth No. 1: Pork barrel is the biggest corruption problem, affecting over P20 billion a year in Priority Development Assistance Fund allocations. A couple of numbers should debunk this line. First, the P27 billion in PDAF lump-sum items in the proposed 2014 budget amounts to just a microscopic 1.2% of next year’s proposed budget of P2.27 trillion. Unless one believes that corruption only affects that fraction of public spending, there are a lot more barrels to worry about than the one containing legislative pork.
In fact, one leftist party-list group estimated amounts allocated and disbursed by President Aquino at P1.3 trillion—more than half the budget. Take away debt principal and interest payments of about P740 billion, and that claimed Palace pork accounts for all but about P200 billion of what the government will spend on operations, public investment and services. Discount the estimate by 90% to P130 billion, and it’s still five times the total congressional pork.
But there’s an even bigger and far more worrisome figure than that, courtesy of President Aquino himself. In his last State of the Nation Address, he thundered: “The Department of Finance estimates that more than 200 billion pesos in revenue slips through our borders without going into public coffers. Where do these people get the gall?” PNoy was, of course, talking about losses from smuggling, no thanks to the Bureau of Customs. Add to that the dangers posed to people by “the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms, and other items of a similar nature into our territory.”
Yet Malacañang has never subjected BoC to the multiple investigations now facing the pork barrel scam, harnessing the Department of Justice, the Commission on Audit, and the Ombudsman, plus the Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council (IAAGCC).
Myth No. 2: Aquino’s reforms will address pork barrel corruption. His mother’s former economic planning secretary, U.P. professor and media commentator Solita Monsod disagrees. She called the supposedly new and improved PDAF “plunder legalized.” The President proposes that so-called soft projects involving consumable goods be banned for funding, since they are hard to measure and verify. Yet infrastructure is also prone to anomalies: for instance, a recent TV feature on pork barrel showed a Bicol road project reported as completed, but missing long stretches.
Rather than prohibiting certain programs because the government cannot verify them properly, President Aquino should instead beef up monitoring and assessment. And there are proven systems to watch and weigh program and project implementation in both the past administration and the current. The latest issue of The CenSEI Report, published by the Center for Strategy, Enterprise & Intelligence, highlights these measures in its special report on the pork barrel controversy, excerpted below:
“This kind of grassroots and civil society watchdog system for public undertakings is, in fact, already in the 2012 Philippine Government Action Plan submitted to the Open Government Partnership earlier this year. Initiative No. 16 in the Plan is Participatory Social Audit for Public Infrastructure Projects. The Commission on Audit scheme mobilizes community members, including engineers, to inspect road, bridge, school, market and other construction projects.
“If that can be done for complex undertakings like infrastructure, why not for far simpler programs like providing books, medicines, fertilizer, and other consumables, where counting and random evaluation of product deliveries are all that’s needed?
“In fact, as recounted in a Princeton case study, the Arroyo administration’s Textbook Count program in 2002-05 partnered with Ateneo de Manila University’s Government Watch, National Citizens Movement for Free Elections, and Boy and Girl Scouts nationwide to monitor bidding, inspect textbook quality, and check deliveries.
Besides the Education Department, G-Watch had similar citizens monitoring tie-ups with Public Works and Highways, Health, and Social Welfare and Development.” (End of excerpt)
Myth No. 3: Napoles’s arrest will nail pork barrel perpetrators. Given the President’s record of sparing his camp from investigations and sanctions, the alleged pork barrel queen’s surrender to him cannot but worry the opposition, while reassuring administration allies, despite pledges of blind justice from the IAAGCC.
Once Napoles testifies and starts pointing fingers at politicians, she knows it would please the administration more if she tarred opponents of President Aquino while keeping mum about his allies’ shenanigans. And up to the pork barrel controversy, the administration has consistently cleared its friends, as three pro-Aquino senators and Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala have recently been thankful for.
If anything, Napoles may become a threat against would-be opponents, showing them that taking on the President would be a painfully and hugely losing proposition.
As for the fight against corruption, The CenSEI Report may again prove instructive and myth-busting (for copies, email firstname.lastname@example.org):
“After two years of his high-profile anti-graft measures, including the jailing of his predecessor on corruption charges, has President Benigno Aquino III made a big dent in corruption? Not much, according to the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer ratings compiled by Berlin-headquartered Transparency International.
“As the TI charts show, most respondents surveyed by the body—62 percent in all—said corruption in the country in Aquino’s two full years in office increased or stayed the same (31 percent each). Another 35 percent saw a little decrease, with a mere 2 percent reporting a big drop. … There’s more to dismay the corruption-weary nation. … 64 percent of Filipinos say corruption is a serious problem, with another 31 percent finding it bothersome. Only 3 percent think it’s not a problem at all. In the third question about “a few big entities” controlling the government, 62 percent see total (15 percent) or large dominance (47 percent), with just 12 percent seeing little or no clout wielded by those powerful interests.”
The Report concludes: “In his pork barrel speech, President Aquino called on citizens to check PDAF projects online … ‘I am calling on each and every Filipino to do his part, even as we do ours,’ urged the President. ‘Together, let us work to strengthen accountability and transparency in government, in order to ensure that public funds are utilized in a just manner—one that truly benefits the Filipino people.’ One prerequisite to achieve this is the Freedom of Information Act, which would empower people to demand truth and accountability from the government.”
If President Aquino and his administration really mean to fight corruption, especially in government projects, they should enact the FOI Law. Otherwise, their avowed crusade against graft will prove to be, well, just another myth.