How much is Php 10 billion worth?
That’s about 10,300 dual major La Salle students on full scholarship, or around 11,000 to 12,000 Engineering and Science scholars. It could also buy 370 million kilograms of rice to feed 3 million Filipinos for one year, build 400 km roads, construct 30,030 fully equipped classrooms… and the list goes on.
Where did the nation’s Php 10 billion go?
Imagine the potential of that immense amount – it’s no surprise that public outrage followed media exposés that eventually spotlighted JLN Corporation head Janet Lim-Napoles, who allegedly funneled around Php 10 billion worth of public pork barrel funds from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) into bogus Non-Government Organizations (NGO) and ghost projects.
Napoles is presumably behind the fake organizations wherein public funds were deposited by participating lawmakers and remitted, with 40 percent going to JLN Corp. The 60 percent went to the lawmaker under the condition that Napoles got to pick the project’s beneficiaries.
A special audit covering the years 2007 – 2009 of Php 12 billion in PDAF funds was released by the Commission of Audit (COA), identifying 82 questionable beneficiaries of Php 6.156 billion. Out of these, 10 that received Php 2.1 billion each were linked to Napoles.
These findings were used with whistleblower Benhur Luy’s testimony to expose Napoles, seven senators and 23 members of the House of Representatives linked to the scandal.
Though the Philippine Congress initially refused to launch a probe on the scandal, it retracted and announced last August 20 that the Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council will commence the investigation.
Last August 28, Napoles surrendered to Malacañang Palace, and is as of press time under custody in Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.
Far from over
Two days before Napoles’ surrender, coinciding with the revolutionary spirit of National Heroes Day, multi-sectoral groups converged in a peaceful protest against the PDAF at Luneta Park, netting an estimated turnout of 400,000.
Uniting Philippine diaspora, the protest action was borne from the “Million People March” effort, a viral reformist movement against the PDAF that stemmed from social networking sites.
De La Salle Philippines (DLSP) partook in the rally, in line with the Renewed Call for Transparency and Accountability from DLSP President Br. JJ Jimenez FSC. The Lasallian Justice and Peace Commission (LJPC) coordinated the march to Luneta.
Beyond the collective presence of an estimated 1,000 Lasallians, facilitators from the LJPC also headed teach-ins and distributed educational handouts on the use of PDAF in Philippine legislative chambers.
“It’s a great sight to see the whole Lasallian community gathered here as one Lasallian family,” said University Student President Migi Moreno during the rally. He laments that the student turnout did not meet his initial expectations due to the day being a school day, but he is happy that other students still involved themselves.
Glory Aguas, an activist partaking in people power rallies since EDSA I, said, “Okay lang tayo, pero ang mga mahihirap, they have no voice. Kaya ako nandito, para may boses sila [We’re okay, but the poor, they have no voice. That’s why I am here: to serve as that voice].”
A representative from the College Editors Guild of the Philippines stressed that youth should be involved in the issue due to its implications on the education sector, especially due to the sector’s prevailing low budget.
Nurhana from the Islamic Liwanag ng Kapayapaan Foundation complained about the state of health services in the Philippines and questions the usage of taxes in the country, enumerating Muslim countries that operate without taxes. Her group hopes that this rally would net the abolishment of the PDAF.
The rally commenced notwithstanding that President Aquino, in response to the restless clamor, released a statement August 22nd on the suspension of the PDAF and proposed revised mechanisms to regulate future pork barrel funding.
These measures include presidential approval before fund release, running requests through the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System (PhilGEPS), restrictions on consumable projects and temporary infrastructure projects, and banning of beneficiary rights from NGOs and certain Government Owned and Controlled Corporations.
Critics slammed Aquino’s declaration. Jay del Rosario, Karatula representative under the Youth ACT NOW! alliance, criticizes the PDAF’s re-establishment under a different name, expressing anger at the government’s lack of transparency and accountability.
Procurement Officer of state think tank Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) Ruth Salazar believes that the revisions remain highly similar to the previous ones, with increased security and transparency.
However, it remains bureaucratic. Government agencies are entitled to a procurement system, materialized through the paperwork-heavy yet oft circumvented Government Procurement Reform Act (GPRA). Appropriations of the pork barrel funds are made through this procurement procedure. The PhilGEPS is simply an internet-based tool used to register accommodation from goods and projects incurring costs from the PDAF.
Problems with the PDAF are reminiscent of past scandals under its previous name as the Countryside Development Fund (CDF). A 1998 report by the Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) cites former Finance Secretary Salvador Enriquez, who said that up to 45 percent of pork barrel funds may be lost to “commissions” of soft projects; kickbacks amounted to 30 percent of total project cost.
These too, resulted in public outrage, reform promises and modifications to the Congressional pork barrel, which turned into the PDAF known today.
This cyclical mess is why DLSP’s National Coordinator of the Lasallian Education Commission and Political Science professor Louie Checa Montemar remains against any pork barrel fund, stating that the decision would benefit the nation.
Montemar furthers that now funds are released at the President’s discretion, he worries that this would perpetuate his stronghold to paralyze opposition in the Congress, which he claims were done by the Arroyo presidency in the name of political favoritism. This is incidentally also a pork problem in the United States.
Similarly, Oscar Picazo, Senior Research Consultant at PIDS, demands PDAF abolishment. He recommends that the line agencies (e.g. DepED, DOH etc.) be responsible in implementing the projects that are usually under the pork barrel system.
Picazo asserts, “Convert all the social programs and small infrastructure projects into items in the budget. That way, you break the nexus between the citizens and their local officials, congressmen, and senators [which results in] patronage politics.”
Chairperson of the Political Science department Dr. Eric Batalla notes that pork barrel systems are present in many democratic systems like in the USA, and supplement the coalition between the legislative units and executive units. He says, “If you’re talking about the survival of certain political presidencies for instance, and legislators, [pork barrel] might be considered by some as necessary, but it’s really the use and the misuse [that’s the issue].” He emphasizes on the lack of transparency in the system and recurring misallocation of public funds, epitomize by the Napoles case.
Batalla concludes on the recent PDAF suspension and screening processes, “I don’t think it will change the system. If the inducements to current behaviors are based on material incentives and the incentives are inappropriate – if that were the case – why can’t they raise their compensation? What would be the right incentives [for them] to behave like legislators rather than vehicles of corruption?”
Montemar concludes, “In place of a particular mechanism for distributing political largesse, which is what the PDAF is all about, I want to see a transparent process where people decide how to use their taxes. It’s a process that should be happening starting from the barangay up to the Malacañang. ”
Erratum: Mr. Gladstone Cuarteros is the National Coordinator of the LJPC, the Community Engagement and Advocacy arm of DLSP. In the previous version published online on September 12, 2013, the title was mistakenly attributed to Louie Checa Montemar, who is currently DLSP’s National Coordinator of the Lasallian Education Commission.