14 March 2007

A missed opportunity

The following is the maiden article for my "The View from Pacol" column that will appear in Vox Bikol starting this week.

COMING from the regular meeting of the Regional Development Council (RDC) last Tuesday at the NEDA Regional Office in Legazpi City, I was shocked to find that families displaced by Super Typhoon Reming and the subsequent lahar flows from Mayon remain crammed in many public schools in Albay, particularly in Guinobatan and Camalig. In all probability, they will still be there until the end of the month and up to early April, a captive audience of the commencement exercises that will mark the end of the present school year.

That’s already four months after Reming pummeled the region. During the meeting, I gathered national government agencies can only start moving if the Council adopts the Bicol Rehabilitation Plan (BRP) put together by the NEDA staff. After some discussion, it eventually did.

In my weblog that same day, I already discussed the frustrations that come with state planning in the Philippines, especially at the regional level. I first had an inkling about it in the mid-90’s when I worked at the RDC when Mayor Jesse Robredo chaired it and we pushed for a regional block allocation system (RBAS) that that Council will allocate according to regional development priorities, its mandate by law. Consistent with Patsy Healey’s communicative planning theory, which recognizes the political nature of the process alongside its technical-rational dimension, priorities arrived at then were the product of consensus building which the NEDA staff and the RDC leadership mediated. We managed to reach as far as the Bicameral Conference Committee -- a testament to the DBM’s initial belief in the soundness of the RBAS concept -- where it was eventually killed off by jealous senators, one of whom is the reelectionist Edgardo Angara.

Information spilled out during last Tuesday’s meeting only confirmed my thesis, for there were two rehab plans that came to the fore: the P13.4-billion BRP that went through completed staff work, thanks to the valiant efforts of the NEDA staff, and saw the light of day in that event; and a P5-billion plan cobbled by the Regional Disaster Coordinating Council, which only few fortunate eyes saw and fewer had the chance to partake of like some spoils of war. They include the legislators and provincial governors allied with the Arroyo administration. Like the RBAS of yesteryears, politicians always have the final say in the short-circuited process, trumping the well-meaning efforts of government professionals every time.

On my way home, the makeshift tents in Camalig and Guinobatan remained etched on my mind: where is the vaunted autonomy that local government units are supposed to have developed, if not perfected, by now, 15 years after the Local Government Code of 1991 launched the Philippine experience with decentralization? If government has to exist by necessity because, in theory and practice, there are activities and services that neither the market nor society at large can provide, what prevented them from coming to the rescue of the thousands of families that remained crammed like sardines in sub-human conditions for close to four months now?

Maybe it has something to do with funding constraints, I told myself, as Albay’s shelter requirements will need around P780 million pesos all in all. But when I checked the Commission on Audit website, the following figures demolished that argument: In 2005 (the latest available), the provincial government of Albay earned P166 million in net income and had P300 million in cash by yearend, both of these higher than the previous year. Legazpi City, on the other hand, had a P35-million income and P79 million in cash.

I think the more probably scenario is a thoroughly opportunistic bent, a reverse and more perverse variant what is called soft budget constraint (SBC) in economic literature. Janos Kornai’s textbook SBC involves state-owned enterprises continuously operating on a loss because the state is expected to bail them out of financial trouble anyway. Here, it is the reverse: financially sound local authorities deliberately holding back on spending in view of the expectation of manna from heaven: the P5-billion rehabilitation fund under the national budget.

In others words, let the people suffer some more, even in subhuman conditions for four months and counting, because help will eventually come our way. What a way to celebrate the 15th year of local autonomy in the Philippines!