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Alternatives to the pork barrel system

Herbert Docena

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What we are challenging is not discretion per se but the parameters of discretion

Herbert Docena

Although the government has yet to heed our demands, the anti-pork movement has already scored a major victory: It has freed our imagination and empowered us to ask, what can replace the pork barrel system? 

That may sound like a hollow win, but as sociologists have emphasized, one of the most underrated achievements of social movements is their ability to shake up taken-for-granted beliefs, to challenge the “naturalness” of the existing order. 

Thanks to the organizing work of such networks as Kilusang KonTRAPOrk, Abolish Pork Movement, and the broad Scrap Pork Network, few today believe the claim—repeated by the President the other night—that there is no other way to provide social services and public goods but for politicians to dispense them almost any way they please to anyone who pleases them.

The movement has punctured one of power’s cherished claims: that there is no alternative. That victory clinched, the struggle to spell out and put in place a different system escalates. 

Pork to perpetuate old politics

For the government and its supporters in civil society, the alternative is simply to “abolish” PDAF—something it has since admitted to not doing yet—and otherwise fine-tune the budget process to protect it from what they consider the main, if not the only, problem: thievery. 

Such an alternative has rested on the narrow technocratic definition of “pork” that the government has been pushing since this crisis erupted: Pork = PDAF. Other supporters have since advanced more sophisticated definitions, considering pork as any fund that leaves “too much” discretion, or the purpose of which is not “specific” enough.

But who under the present dispensation determines what is “specific” enough or how much discretion is “too much”? “Pork,” under these proposed definitions, is just ultimately whatever those in power decide it to be. 

Such a definition is deeply political because it reinforces a particular way of framing the issue that suits the interests of the system’s defenders: as only a fight against thieves—not a fight against both thieves and the system that breeds them.

And it is political because its goal is political: to divide and destroy our movement. By advancing their limited alternatives to pork-as-they-define-it-to-be, they seek to limit our imaginations and claim to heed our demands—all in the hope of making us go home and quit the fight.

Pork to open up new politics

But many of us refuse to leave. And the alternatives we are exploring are very different—alternatives that rest on a more substantive definition of what we are fighting. 

There have been many implicit and explicit formulations of that definition, but I think the following captures most if not all of their elements: 

“Pork” is any public fund whose allocation and disbursement depends solely on the ultimate discretion of a single official, thus giving said official control over resources to make his/her subordinates beholden or indebted to him/her, thereby creating or reinforcing unequal, morally-degrading relations of subservience while simultaneously opening up opportunities for corruption.

Consistent with this definition, the anti-pork movement has therefore called not just for prosecuting all thieves, but also for abolishing the pork barrel system: not just PDAF, but also the gargantuan “presidential pork,” the funds from Malampaya, and other lump-sum funds, including the revenues from Pagcor, PCSO, etc. which, the government disturbingly claims, should not even be considered “public funds”—as if Pagcor and PCSO would make money at all if they weren’t state monopolies.

Indeed, one of the inspiring successes of our movement to date has been how—despite the state fully mobilizing its propaganda arm against us, despite pressure from the President’s most influential supporters—we have refused to compromise on our demand to scrap pork in all its forms. 

And under that definition, DAP is clearly pork in yet another form.

Parameters of discretion

Needless to say, the government, and even well-meaning technocrats and pundits, object to, and will simply overrule, our definition if they can.

One predictable objection comes from those with an “empiricist” bent: those for whom the only things that are “real” are those that can be seen or touched. Because “unequal power relations” are invisible, it does not possibly exist, so the definition above is pure metaphysics.

But power relations are real. They are manifested in all those observable if imperfect associations discernible to all but the most dogmatic empiricists: Those who tend to receive hospitalization assistance through PDAF also tend to vote for those who gave them said assistance.

A more common objection is that such a definition is too all-encompassing; we can’t possibly remove all discretion from our officials. Such an objection, however, caricatures and mocks our demands. 

Obviously, we are not demanding that the President should have to go to Congress or to the people every time there is a disaster to ask whether he should spend P100 to buy sardines or rice. What we are challenging is not discretion per se but the parameters of discretion: should the President have discretion over P10 million, P100 million or P1 billion? On what conditions? And who decides? The President himself?

Finally, others might object that our definition is also political—and here they will be right. For such a definition also has a goal no less political than the government’s, but one which I and many others believe to be more empowering, more faithful to the “tuwid na daan” proclaimed by the President.

For ours is a fight not just against corruption in the narrow legal-technical sense, targeting not just Napoles, Estrada, Enrile, or the other thieves chosen by Malacañang.

Ours is also simultaneously a fight against corruption in the deeper sense, a struggle against a system—an undemocratic, corruption-ridden and morally-degrading system of patronage—rather than personalities. So it cannot just be directed selectively at thieves, but at all those who use (or who will use) the powers of the state to defend such a system no matter where they are—whether they be in our LGUs, Congress, or in Malacañang—and no matter who they are—whether they be Estrada, GMA, Aquino, Binay or Roxas.

Participatory budgeting system

Using our broader definition, it becomes clearer why the pork barrel system cannot simply be “reformed,” as some insist. After all, if the pork barrel system serves to establish relations of patronage, then to reform it may paradoxically just result in better ways of perpetuating such problematic relations.

Systems that intrinsically produce undesired outcomes should not be made better; they should only be abolished.

Thinking outside the government-box, the pork-barrel system’s possible replacements become easier to imagine: Alternatives to pork include all those ways of allocating and disbursing resources which strips officials of discretion over huge sums of money and empowers citizens to directly decide for themselves how to budget funds, thereby preventing them from being beholden to officials and enabling them to break free from patronage.

In theory, this could be possible by simply refining our current representative democracy. In practice, the power of dynasties, the influence of money, and fossilized class inequalities require stronger countervailing measures to “level the playing field.” 

And this is why the concept of “participatory budgeting”—a system pioneered in Brazil but which has spread to Venezuela and even to cities in the US and Europe—seems so promising. Just imagine: hundreds of ordinary citizens huddled together in an assembly hall, passionately debating how to spend sizeable amounts of public funds in their local communities and the entire country.

Multiply this scene by the number of barangays or towns in the country and you have a system that contrasts starkly with the current system in which a single person decides how to spend over a trillion pesos. It is also very different from the still toothless “bottom-up budgeting” some have been pushing locally, one in which very miniscule amounts are at stake and community decisions are not even made binding.

Apart from empowering ordinary citizens at the grassroots, “participatory budgeting” offers potent, built-in checks against thieves. As researcher Rebecca Aber, who examined the practice in Brazil, concluded: “It was impossible for money to disappear, for contracts to be overpriced, for promises to be ignored, and for unnecessary investments to be made…” 

After all, with millions of eyes and ears vigilantly monitoring every step of the budget process and making sure not a single peso is stolen or wasted, there are fewer openings for plunder. The promise is that we will not just see where money goes, as Freedom-of-Information (FOI) Law advocates rightly demand; we will also actually have a hand in determining where it goes. 

Contesting power

To be sure, such a system is not fool-proof. The most ingenious of trapos will find ways to game it. And those who are more educated, more networked, more influential—or who simply have more free time because they don’t have to work three jobs or breastfeed their babies—can easily dominate the process.

All that, however, does not mean that participatory budgeting cannot be made better than the pork barrel system; it only goes to show that replacing the current system entails more than simply going after thieves or tinkering with laws or procedures. It requires putting in place what sociologists call the “conditions of possibility” for all people to really participate meaningfully in politics, such as education, free time, self-confidence—preconditions that entail altering existing class and gender relations.

Working to put in place those conditions, in turn, constantly call on us to refuse to be boxed by what is currently deemed “legal.” For as many of us have learned in this and previous struggles, what is legal is not always moral and what is moral is not always legal precisely because the question of legality has often been decided by power. If our alternatives can be achieved through existing laws, then we use them; if not, we advocate to change them. 

But legality should follow our vision of what is right and ideal, not the other way around. 

To be sure, how we translate that vision into actual institutions require much more open, democratic debates within and beyond the movement. Still, the fact that we are now able to have these debates about alternatives—outside the box the state wants to box us in—is a victory in itself.

But for us to achieve even bigger victories, we need to constantly connect our struggle for alternatives to the imperative of challenging power. For it is those with power, in the end, who seek to constrict our imagination, and it is those in power, in the end, who are blocking the alternatives that we imagine. –

The author is a PhD student in Sociology who has joined Kilusang KonTRAPOrk and the Scrap Pork Network. His views do not necessarily reflect said networks’ positions.

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