Community pantries

[ANALYSIS] Divert red-tagging funds to community pantries

JC Punongbayan
[ANALYSIS] Divert red-tagging funds to community pantries

Illustration by DR Castuciano

'If NTF-ELCAC funds are meant for local development, why not just give money to barangays without condition? Why hostage billions of pesos worth of funds on account of rebels who number, according to the military itself, less than 4,000 nationwide?'

Filipinos are taking aid distribution into their own hands.

Fed up by the Duterte government’s glaring lack of aid, Ana Patricia Non set up on April 14 a “community pantry” along Quezon City’s Maginhawa Street, a familiar haunt among students and food lovers.

The concept is simple: “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” (Give according to one’s ability, take according to one’s needs.) 

It was an instant hit. Each day the line of beneficiaries grew longer and longer, more and more people donated, and dozens of other community pantries have sprouted nationwide. There’s even one now in East Timor.

But government saw red: Ms. Non was quickly profiled and red-tagged, primarily by Quezon City police and the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict). In a TV interview, a spokesperson of NTF-ELCAC even likened Ms. Non to Satan. 

Maybe these officials were triggered by the Marxian slogan of the community pantry. Or maybe they mistook “community pantry” for “communist party.” At any rate, things went so bad that the Maginhawa Community Pantry had to halt operations. Other community pantries have been red-tagged as well.

However you look at this, the rise of community pantries is a damning indictment on the Duterte government’s utter failure to hand out enough economic relief to Filipinos in the middle of the pandemic and the recession. 

Rather than strike down such efforts, government ought to lend support and pour money into them by, say, realigning the funds of wasteful programs like the red-tagging-obsessed NTF-ELCAC itself.

Why community pantries work

From an economic viewpoint, the community pantries are rather fascinating because they’re proving to be a viable way of reallocating relief goods in these trying times. 

Unlike markets, the community pantries aren’t mediated by the price system. But demand and supply are similarly at play.

As for demand, the lines are so long because the Duterte government deliberately (if criminally) underfunded economic aid this year. Hundreds of billions of pesos worth of emergency subsidies for poor households were discontinued, among other forms of relief. (READ: Why you should be alarmed by Duterte’s 2021 budget)

Because of the recent lockdown, the national government did provide aid for areas in the “NCR Plus” bubble. But that involved only P1,000 per person and at most P4,000 per household — certainly not enough to tide over the poor. No wonder so many are queueing at the community pantries. 

The abysmal lack of aid is precisely the reason why some lawmakers are now pushing for a P420-billion economic relief package called Bayanihan 3. Sadly, Bayanihan 3 has yet to pass, and Duterte hasn’t yet certified it as urgent. (READ: Why Congress needs to pass Bayanihan 3 now)

As for supply, community pantries seem an effective way to channel excess savings and funds from private individuals and groups. 

It’s very easy to set one up (you need only tables and some signages), they can be set up virtually anywhere (avoiding the need to gather people in very large crowds where COVID-19 can spread), and they do away with the complicated, time-consuming business of targeting aid (anyone who lines up can partake in the relief goods).

In some rare instances, supplies were hoarded. But this can’t be totally avoided since the community pantries are essentially “common goods” susceptible to the classic tragedy of the commons

Nonetheless, there are ways to avoid hoarding. An element of shame can serve as a deterrent, especially where lines are long and many pairs of eyes follow you as you take your turn. (Maybe because of this, most people carry a tote bag or two but not more.) Goods can also be packed in advance and rationed in equal portions, though this defeats the purpose of allowing people to take according to their needs. 

All in all, these community pantries are a wonderful evolved response to government’s failures — and a triumph of decentralized over centralized organization.

Realign NTF-ELCAC funds

In many places, the community pantries not so much augment government aid but substitute for it altogether. If government can’t distribute aid well, for whatever reason, the least it can do is to throw its weight behind the private sector’s initiatives. 

One way is to pass as soon as possible Bayanihan 3, which can be modified to add allocations for community pantries specifically. 

Another way is to divert public monies away from glaringly wasteful programs in the 2021 budget. One such program is the NTF-ELCAC itself, which undeservedly received a whopping P19 billion in the 2021 budget.

Why such a large fund? The NTF-ELCAC primarily and ostensibly aims to rid the nation of the communist insurgency. They plan to achieve this by offering P20 million worth of development programs to each of 822 barangays that can prove to be “communist-free.” Such money can be spent on farm-to-market roads, health stations, rural electrification, etc.

This Barangay Development Program alone totals P16.44 billion. 

In early March 2021, Duterte himself kicked off a nationwide campaign to distribute NTF-ELCAC funds. He started at Northern Mindanao, but records show that Davao Region and Davao City are set to be the program’s two biggest beneficiaries (see map below).

Development support for barangays has long been part of the budget item called Local Government Support Fund. But this year, significant control was placed under NTF-ELCAC directly, which is headed largely by retired generals in Duterte’s cabinet. Hence, the moniker “generals’ pork.” 

If NTF-ELCAC funds are meant for local development, why not just give money to barangays without condition? Why hostage billions of pesos worth of funds on account of rebels who number, according to the military itself, less than 4,000 nationwide?

Also, officials are forgetting that poverty drives insurgency. Expecting insurgency to go away without first ensuring local economic development is like putting the cart before the horse. 

The biggest problem here is that the NTF-ELCAC funds are essentially an invitation to crack down on suspected communists, thus opening the floodgates for mindless red-tagging. Indeed, the NTF-ELCAC’s spokespersons have done nothing but that. Even actress Liza Soberano wasn’t spared

Calls to realign NTF-ELCAC funds are gaining traction, and rightly so. Some opposition senators, including Senator Frank Drilon and Senator Risa Hontiveros, have been clamoring for this since last year. But now even some administration senators — presumably emboldened by the upcoming elections — are threatening to defund NTF-ELCAC in the 2022 budget.

By the way, it’s not just NTF-ELCAC that has to go. Many other projects are also worth defunding for the sake of economic aid, including the ugly and useless dolomite project along Manila Bay. (READ: The bad economics of dumping fake white sand along Manila Bay)

Imagine how many community pantries can be set up without these and many other ill-conceived, wasteful government expenses.

Good old bayanihan

As community pantries grow in popularity, some people have naturally asked: what are we paying taxes for, if government can’t help our people anyway? 

Bear in mind that community pantries are an evolved response to the inadequacies of the Duterte government. In the long run, what we need is a sufficiently progressive tax system paired with robust social safety nets. 

Until those are firmly in place, however — and until we get vastly better leadership than what we have now — we really must look after one another, to the fullest extent we can. 

Last year government tried to embody this spirit of community in the names of its spending packages, Bayanihan 1 and 2. But so far nothing beats good old bayanihan by ordinary Filipinos: voluntary, spontaneous, organic. – Rappler.com

JC Punongbayan is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.