Collateral damage of pork war

Dean Tony La Viña
In the war against pork corruption, truth is something better appreciated from perspective rather than from passion

It’s easy to lose one’s self in the heady feeling of mass action, of an upswell of righteous indignation against the pork barrel scam.

The Million People March (MPM) was of a piece with the EDSA Revolutions of 1987 and 2001. The more dramatic descriptions would describe the MPM, and all efforts to renounce pork and hold accountable the involved parties, as a war: a just war against corruption.

A war, which some voices seek to escalate, in order to put further pressure on all parties concerned, through continued protest action, whether in EDSA, or before the halls of Congress, or even in the trial of Janet Lim-Napoles, suspected as the facilitator of malicious diversion of Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) into private pockets.

Like all wars, which never are a neat business, we must beware of the collateral damage: the unintended targets and effects of our actions in this conflict. Commentators and stakeholders alike have already said we suffered collateral damage, on top of what the damage to governance and development pork-fuelled corruption has done to our people.

Without losing the determination to see this war through, we nonetheless need to take a deep breath, stand back, and take stock. Perhaps it’s easier for me to do so now, detached, as I compose this while abroad, in Indonesia, to teach on environmental matters. Perhaps, also because while we are beset with the PDAF scam, other problems threaten even greater chaos upon the world. There is political unrest in the Middle East, such as the Egypt’s civil conflict and Syria’s actual war. There are environmental catastrophes triggered by climate change.

Truth as first casualty of war

The first casualty of war, said Winston Churchill, is the truth. So it is here in the war against pork corruption: truth is something better appreciated from perspective rather than from passion.

It is true that there are specific liabilities to address: the charges against Napoles and her co-accused, the involved legislators and other government officials, and non-government organizations (NGOs)-in-name-only of defrauding the state, siphoning off billions from the national coffers. We must be ever vigilant that these liabilities, where they exist, are brought to light, that measures be taken so that it may never happen again, and justice be done.

Yet, as I’ve repeatedly and sadly observed countless times in other issues, passion sometimes overtakes perspective, combined with an unhealthy cynicism about politics.

From specific liabilities, some voices have accused all Congress, all government, even all NGOs wholesale of being involved in this scandal—that everyone is tainted by corruption. Some eyes see conspiracies everywhere—to evade prosecution, to paralyze the Administration or Opposition, to advance one’s political agenda at the expense of others.

Even Napoles’ surrender to President Aquino is suspected of having political or at least privilege undertones, raising conspiracy theories surrounding Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa or Aquino’s party-mates and allies in the legislature.

While I would question the wisdom of the President’s receiving of Napoles, including the comparison of her surrender to acts of revolutionary heroes Luis Taruc and Teodoro Asedillo, I do believe President Aquino’s explanation of why he personally accepted Napoles’ surrender. I have also never taken seriously the intrigues against Ochoa. My observation is that he is a quiet, hard worker that the President relies on for the nuts and bolts of daily governance.

Senate President Franklin Drilon may have proposed the abolition of Congress tongue-in-cheek: as a way of criticizing proposals to decrease the legislature’s legitimately-granted Constitutional power of the purse. Yet it also reflects the fervor uncompromising revolutionary passion often takes, to sweep aside everything, guilty and innocent alike, to clear the way for change.

While the public has every right to be righteously angry, and we do need change, we should also be careful that our anger doesn’t overwhelm our reason.

There is a cautionary proverb against this: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” To reiterate: there are specific liabilities which specific personalities have incurred in this scandal, which can be brought to light through the trial which Napoles and her co-accused shall face, and in the Senate Blue Ribbon hearings being chaired masterfully so far by Senator Teofisto Guingona III, and in other supporting authoritative investigations.

In the interests of the truth, we should let these processes proceed unimpeded. In particular, Napoles deserves a fair trial, as does the Philippines. To try to force some sort of “acceptable” verdict through popular action risks either the trial court or an appeal court to rightfully acquit Napoles on the technicality of mistrial due to partiality, the accused being denied the due process of law.

The poor as losers

Besides the truth, there are far greater collateral casualties that call our attention. The biggest is the Philippine poor. It may not seem apparent at first sight, but as a sector they contribute the biggest chunk of Philippine government revenues (their income may be low, as is their corresponding taxes, but they also pay Value Added Taxes for their individual purchases).

Their taxes if they are employed are automatically withheld by their employers, almost without question. White collar professionals or their accountants sometimes have the luxury of claiming additional tax exemptions as they calculate their own taxes. The poor, as much as or even more than higher-income taxpayers, deserve an accounting from their government of their taxpayer pesos.

Yet they are also doubly victimized: the PDAF also funds the various social services (such as free heath check-ups and scholarships) they’ve come to depend on from their legislators, either as a sop to ensure votes, or, in the ideal case, as a genuine attempt to spur development or provide a social safety net for the constituency.

Now that the calls for pork abolition have gathered such steam, this better-or-worse lifeline is about to be cut, with a replacement being mightily frowned upon. Where else may the poor turn then, to obtain those goods once provided out of the legislative largess? The budget process is often too torturous to easily admit these former pork allocations as regular items under the General Appropriations Act, in the face of political debate and opposition.

Finally, even though the PDAF may be used to good ends, in the end it can only feed attitudes of patronage politics on both ends of the pork pipeline. Not only does the legislator feel “entitled” to have a largess, but his constituency may develop ingrained habits of expecting the blessings of that largess, further tying them to the good will of their patron.

It’s a medieval mindset that, more often than not, only entrenches the status quo: instead of working towards transformative, “game-changing” policies and agenda, legislators and constituencies alike may feel contented with their regular dose of PDAF-funded hand-outs.

For the pork barrel to exist is a festering wound to those who deserve to be lifted from misery and squalor.

The demonization of NGOs

One big casualty of the pork war is the citizen sector. It’s unfortunate that both government and media are not distinguishing between legitimate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and bogus ones. The list in the COA report does not indicate which ones are the former and which are the latter. But how do we do that?

The names given are not familiar even if I worked with citizen organizations for many years. Yet I still feel uncomfortable about making judgments knowing that there are in fact thousands of legitimate citizen organizations in the Philippines

Indeed, citizen organizations are feeling the pressure of the scrutiny over the pork barrel, as their PDAF-funded projects fall under the investigation of authorities and media alike. While indeed there are fly-by-night NGOs out only to profit from government-citizen cooperation, now the entire class is suspected at the least, criticized at the worst, for engaging and cooperating with government.

It’s too easy to forget that citizen organizations still provide many social services to our vulnerable countrymen that government is unable or unwilling to do. The PDAF, for all its ills, was one of their sources of funding.

Government-citizen cooperation is not wrong. And, absent specific evidences against specific offenders, citizen organizations should enjoy at least the presumption of good faith in being funded from government sources. Besides, I do not think that local governments and the national agencies have currently enough capacity to actually deliver all the basic services to all the places that this is needed.

That said, perhaps the PDAF scandal should provoke a thoughtful discussion on the character and illumination of government-citizen engagement, in order to ensure the credibility and accountability of such cooperation.

As someone in this sector for nearly 30 years, co-founding in 1987 a leading human rights and environmental organization in the Philippines and as someone who sits in the board of numerous groups, this is a good time for us to sit down, reflect and ask hard questions about who we are and how we want to work with government.

I would for example encourage NGOs to discuss the very nomenclature we use for our organizations – “non-governmental organization” or “civil society organization” (CSO). These are negative terms in that we define ourselves in relation to what we are not.

The term NGO and CSO posits and contrasts our organization against the government as if the latter was an enemy. In fact, in Marxian scholarship, “civil society” is a term for alienation and is something that is not a badge of honor but to be overcome.

This was understandable during the Martial Law period and the early years after the EDSA revolution but I do not think this is still relevant today when citizen organizations partner with government in many things, including in implementing projects and delivering services.

For this reason, I prefer to use the word “citizen organizations” than NGO or CSO; the term is more modern and inclusive and does not have the baggage of the past.

I would also ask citizen organizations to seriously reconsider accepting government funding to support our work. I think that the best role we can play is to ensure social accountability, holding government accountable not only to norms of integrity and honesty but also effectiveness.

If citizen organizations do want to implement government projects and receive government funding, they should be considered contractors, subject to all procurement and auditing rules.

Helping reforms in government

Certainly not the least of those that may have been affected by the pork war are our champions of reform in all government branches. They certainly share the same aspirations as the rest of us to reform government finances, among other things, but they still are politicians and government officials that feel the heat from our criticisms and actions.

As earlier recounted, suspicions and conspiracy theories surrounding Janet Napoles and the pork barrel issue have damned the guilty and innocent alike. Such suspicions, when unwarranted, demoralize those innocent of the PDAF scandal. (Their opponents, less inclined to reform, may in fact leverage this by turning such suspicions into accusations against the “good guys” of profiting from pork, costing them political support.)

When so many personalities in governance work to entrench the old system of patronage politics, we need reform allies in government in order to keep them in check, if not reverse their efforts outright. Yet the face of indiscriminate anger, no matter how righteous, will alienate even the understanding.

Honest politicians—they do exist!—in the end require our support, our votes and our voices, to enact beneficial agendas and policies. Many have observed how Aquino’s call for abolition of pork, coupled with massive and vocal popular support, can override Congress’ traditional protection of this privileged fund. The same is true of lower-level politicians and government officials, even in matters less dramatic than PDAF.

To the reformers in government, be they in the executve, legislative or judicial branches, let us extend arms of support and ask: How can we help you? What do you need from us so you can make even more of a difference?

Calming down

From a well-known song in the musical Les Miserables: “… the music of a people who will not be slaves again.” As much as we should no longer be slaves to patronage politics, we shouldn’t be slaves to our own anger as well.

It will be counterproductive, tearing down the structures, resources, and people we need to win the fight against corruption. The messy democracy of popular, even revolutionary protest and the pressure of a multitude of voices, is also the messy democracy of fair trials; the passage of laws of reform and change; of trust in law and in good people in government; and the slow revolutions of the political heart which, my faith tells me, is the most enduring change, the most successful revolution.

In the immediate moment, I appeal for calm among us. Without letting our guard down, may we let the processes of government and of law do their work, watched vigilantly but unimpeded. May we trust and support our allies in government to see this effort through.

We can afford to be watchfully patient. We cannot afford to spend all our energies on one war and only one strategy for that war. To reiterate a theme from a previous piece elsewhere: We need a life beyond politics, every once in a while.

Or in our fury, we will take everything down with our target. –

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