THE announcement earlier in the week that former Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson would be named “Rehab Czar” to oversee the enormous task of rebuilding the areas wrecked by Super Typhoon Yolanda was, at first, a reason for cautious optimism.
The signal from the Aquino administration that they understand there is an extraordinary amount of work to be done that cannot simply be handled in the normal course of business was perhaps the first time in the disaster’s aftermath that they made a correct decision, and any sort of arrangement that even resembles the dedicated emergency management agency the Philippines should have had all along is an improvement as well.
Any confidence in the move quickly evaporated, however, once President B.S. Aquino 3rd and Lacson himself began talking about it publicly. This is what President Aquino had to say about it: “Why Ping Lacson? Siguro (perhaps) Ping Lacson strikes me as a no-nonsense person . . . Having Ping Lacson at the center where he is a no-nonsense guy focused solely on Yolanda’s rehabilitation will undoubtedly achieve the targets sooner and that is again the primary reason why we looked at the unique capabilities of Senator Lacson to be able to deliver.”
To the extent that the people who will need to carry out the work and the people who will benefit from it probably would prefer a minimum of nonsense, being a “no-nonsense” guy certainly would be a positive attribute for the leader of the effort; whether or not that actually qualifies as a “unique capability” is debatable.
In describing how he reached his decision to accept the job, former senator Lacson explained, “When the President asked me if I could be in charge of rehabilitation efforts, I did not immediately say, ‘Yes,’ and asked for time to think about it because I know it’s a daunting task and it’s also not my area of expertise,” adding that had the President offered a position in a law enforcement capacity, he would have accepted at once.
Well now, this is all really encouraging, isn’t it? The President appoints someone to the most important job the country’s had to fill in the last 20 years (and possibly ever), but can’t describe what qualifies this person as the best candidate for the job, while the candidate in question acknowledges that the job is, in fact, outside the range of his training and experience, and candidly admits that he would prefer to do something else.
Of course, the concern about having someone who is not obviously suited to the task in charge of a reconstruction that is a matter of survival for some people and will make or break the country’s continued image as a “tiger economy” might be misplaced, because it is not at all clear that he will actually have any real authority. Congress is preparing a budget for the reconstruction effort, which is exactly what they should be doing right now (although a couple of Senators who have aged well beyond any grasp of the concepts of “shame” and “using time wisely” have apparently not gotten that memo). But what they are not preparing a budget for is a new, separate office headed by a “rehabilitation czar,” as Sen. Francis Escudero explained to the Philippine Star the other day: “I don’t know what the mandate of Senator Lacson would be and I don’t know what role he will play, but the budget we passed is through the implementing agencies. These are the line departments,” Escudero said. “Senator Lacson or the office that will be created is not an implementing agency.
[His role is] coordinative, so it’s the agencies who will use these funds, bid it out or implemented themselves.”
Even Senate President Franklin Drilon, quoted in the same article and speaking with a reluctance that was so palpable it was virtually oozing off the page, had to agree that the President could not delegate the realignment of funds to someone else, which leaves former senator Lacson in the very odd position of being given the responsibility for overseeing the post-typhoon rehabilitation but not being given any resources to do so. This likely came as a surprise to President Aquino and his accountant Mr. Abad, who seemed to be planning for the “office” of “rehabilitation czar” to serve as a means to legitimize their continued use of the so-called “Disbursement Acceleration Program,” or DAP funds.
On a totally unrelated note, I’ve decided the DAP scandal has grown to “gate-worthy” status, and should now be referred to as “DAPgate.” Please update your records accordingly.
So without a “rehabilitation agency” as any sort of definable entity, President Aquino has created one of two things: Either an extra layer of officialdom that usurps—probably unconstitutionally—the existing authority of line agencies, or he has created a mere consultancy by providing a “rehabilitation czar” that has only the legal authority to make suggestions. Either way it is completely unnecessary, and as far as Aquino’s Cabinet is concerned, an almost insulting expression of his lack of confidence in them, given that former senator Lacson’s sole qualification, even by his own admission, is that he is a “no-nonsense guy.”
The idea is actually worse than unnecessary, because it creates confusion at a time when responsibilities and chains of command should be clearly defined. A much better alternative would have been to pass an enabling law similar to the legislation created in the aftermath of the Mount Pinatubo eruption: A law which defines—either in terms of geographic areas affected, projects that need to be done, or both—the scope of a new dedicated agency or interagency committee to handle reconstruction, with the boundaries between “rehabilitation” and “normal government functions” spelled out, and an appropriate budget provided to address the former.
“Better alternatives” are not as big a priority, however, as political accommodation. Ping Lacson has been a controversial figure, but he has a certain reputation for probity in key areas that is a well-known matter of record. Perhaps he should exercise that aspect of his public persona, and consider whether his need for public visibility can actually be reconciled with the long-term rebuilding needs of something between four and ten million typhoon-affected people.