31 March 2007

Notes after Day 1

1. THE Villafuerte telenovela

PUT IT 1-0 in favor of LRay.

Yesterday morning, a battle of press conferences marked the first salvo in the war for the hearts and minds of the electorate, simulcast in leading radio stations in Naga.

I did not see the bizarre father-and-son conflict make it into national TV the other night, for the entire nation to see, when deadline for filing of candidacies for local posts came. But snippets of the younger Villafuerte's press con I heard, and his father's riposte a few minutes later.

Luis, Jr. spilled the guts on why he defied his father's wishes, naming names and events that otherwise were only being whispered hereabouts -- a powerful paramour who tried to continue controlling Capitol even when he already assumed office, and shenanigans involving his father's loyalists and inherited staff (whom he fired).

It conveyed the image of an offended son who had to make the tough decisions in trying to set things right, which is what he thought his father asked of him when he left his multimillion-peso export business to continue their family's legacy of public service.

These revelations clearly jarred the putative House Speaker of the next Philippine Congress. In his own presscon, I never thought that Rep. Luis Villafuerte is capable of speaking in a meek, even hushed, voice but -- voilà! -- he did. In this emerging theatre of the absurd, it was all too surreal! That alone demonstrated that his junior had the upperhand.

But the undertones notwithstanding, Luis the father still spewed venoms at his son's direction, accusing him becoming a wayward child who needs to be disciplined, of being corrupted by power (I thought the Ring had been long destroyed by the fires of Mordor, but it seems to have reappeared in the land of Isarog), of running amok with the Capitol's finances, and of engaging in grand corruption that is more than sufficient to cause his downfall.

The situation has clearly degenerated into the pot-calling-the-kettle-back kind of thing; the elder Villafuerte's problem is, his son's revelations have the ring of truth, which is critical in the 45-day mind games ahead of us; and worse, the LRay kettle's teflon-like shiny sheen is keeping the allegations from sticking.

2. The House of Fuentebella

After these all happened, the political leaders of 3rd district Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella, the first Bikolano House Speaker and the last during the Erap regime, gathered together in their house in Barangay Abella to proclaim the family's local candidates in Partido, which is how the district is more popularly known.

Fuentebella's speech was mostly broadcast live over my favorite station, RMN-DWNX, which only affirmed where its loyalties lay all along. But I think the most important, unstated message is that of differentiation: that while the House of Villafuerte, their biggest political rival, is being consumed by fire, the House of Fuentebella has remained strong, "a model we are offering for others to consider," in Noli's own words.

This year, the family is celebrating its own centennial, dating back to 1907 when Jose Fuentebella, who later would become a representative to the Philippine Legislature, senator of the republic and ambassador to Indonesia, joined politics and entered public service. It is widely expected that it will back LRay's reelection bid against former Tourism Secretary and Postmaster General Eduardo Pilapil -- who beat the Fuentebellas in 1987 and is now being fielded by Luis the father against his son.

3. Leni Robredo

Reelectionist Naga City mayor Jesse Robredo has managed to convince his wife Leni to file her own certificate of candidacy as mayor at the last minute, his insurance just in case the reported disqualification effort being cooked up by political rivals against him -- in the deepest bowels of Comelec central office in Intramuros -- prospers. The usual complaint by the usual suspects is his alleged Chinese citizenship.

If given due course, this absurdity will surely rival the unfolding telenovela of his kins. And the odds are that it just might -- notwithstanding the fact that Robredo has served Naga for five terms already, racking up local, national and international recognitions for the city and the country in the process, foremost of them the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service.

Well, you really can never tell, with a Comelec that took its own sweet time before finally declaring Joselito "Juju" Cayetano as a nuisance senatorial candidate; that refuses to reveal who are the individuals running by way of the party list route, because it will expose the dirty Malacañang connection to all and sundry; and that junked Ateneo professor Danton Remoto and his Ladlad partylist group while giving due course to the senatorial bid of an obvious fake and his phony political party. And of course, with Raul Gonzales as secretary of (in)justice.

The sweet irony that might come out of this is it might just accelerate the fulfillment of their political rivals' deepest fears: of Robredo eventually fielding Leni when he is again term-limited in 2010. (Although I think they're way too decent to take this route; why does the word "differentiation" come to mind over and over again?)

The other day, James Adams, the World Bank vice president for East Asia and the Pacific, visited Naga together with country representative Joachim von Amsberg and other high ranking bank officials. I have a feeling the bank, not to mention other international development institutions, will only be too willing to take in a suddenly jobless Jesse Robredo and put him alongside former La Paz, Bolivia mayor Ronald MacLean-Abaroa in the World Bank Institute.

More...

30 March 2007

History repeating itself

KINS, one of them a prominent national figure, both won in the previous local election, thanks to the influence and machinery of the former.

Midway through the term, they have a nasty falling out as the up-and-coming politician begins to defy his older benefactor.

Wizened pol responds by putting up a candidate against his former protégé to stop his reelection bid.

The protégé beats the challenge and swamps his benefactor's candidate.

If you think this storyline describes the father-and-son split in Camarines Sur politics that continue to make national headlines is one of the bizarre developments in this election, think again. You may have guessed correctly that incumbent Rep. Luis R. Villafuerte is the veteran politician; but you can put incumbent Naga City mayor Jesse Robredo in his son LRay's place and the premises remain just as valid.

Flashback to those heady post-EDSA days. In 1988, LRV wins as Camarines Sur governor and his nephew Jesse barely scrapes a win in Naga. Then, they part ways -- let me point you again to this column by Joe Perez for the whys and wherefores -- and fail to reconcile.

Calling his nephew "ingrato," the incensed governor fields his sister, Pura Luisa Villafuerte-Magtuto, against Robredo. The latter wins by a landslide, towing his entire ticket to victory. Overconfident and distracted by managing the losing national campaign of then House Speaker Ramon Mitra, LRV shockingly loses the Capitol to his vice governor, the mercurial Jose "Nonoy" Bulaong.

Fastforward to 2007 and the situation is eerily familiar. LRV is now Kampi president, remains a national figure, and is eyeing to become the next House Speaker. Short of calling his own son "ingrato," he is fielding an old reliable -- former Tourism Secretary and one-time 3rd district congressman Eduardo Pilapil -- to run against LRay, who wisely remains respectful towards his father in media interviews, carefully refraining from badmouthing him as his cousin Jesse did and continues to do.

What remains to be seen is whether history will exactly repeat itself 15 years later -- that is, (a) if LRay wins, which is not exactly fartfetched; and (b) if former 2nd district congressman Sulpicio "Cho" Roco, Jr. can pull off a Bulaong and deal LRV, again heavily favored to win and become the first post-EDSA congressman to get reelected, another shocking defeat.

More...

29 March 2007

State of the civil service

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

YESTERDAY, I had the opportunity to catch Civil Service Commission chair Karina Constantino-David’s address on the topic “Bureaucracy, Governance and Human Development in the Philippines.” Occasion was the 2007 general assembly of the Human Development Network (HDN), the foremost advocacy group for the propagation and mainstreaming of sustainable human development in the country.

The state of Philippine public service, as she described, is a mix of good and bad news. Let me start with the good news.

The hope of our country is in the local governments, and outside Manila. I have heard different people, highly respected in their own fields, talk about the same theme: that Philippine LGUs -- their own troubles notwithstanding -- are our last best hope. But it is the first time I heard an affirmation from no less than the chief of our most respected constitutional body today.

Of the twelve government agencies rated outstanding by its in-house evaluators -- who posed as clients in assessing service quality recently -- only two are national government agencies, David said; the rest are LGUs. And of these 12, only one was rated excellent: the city government of Marikina.

She offered two reasons why:

One, local chief executives are closer to constituents than their counterparts in the national government. The line of accountability is therefore shorter, always keeping frontline service providers -- by way of their elected bosses who interface directly with their constituents -- on their toes.

And two, the quality of staff in the provinces are way much better than their Manila-based counterparts. This stems from the fact that while Manila-based state agencies are left scraping the barrel in terms of personnel quality (with the private sector getting the crème de la crème), their provincial counterparts get the best ones of those who refuse to join the rat race in the national capital and choose to stay put.

Unfortunately, the bad news is equally formidable: at no time in the history of Philippine civil service that it is being buffeted by rank politicization as being practised by the Arroyo administration.

Someone asked why India, a far bigger democracy with a far more vast bureaucracy than ours, has a more independent civil service. The answer lies, according to David, in the strong influence of the British civil service, where a line is drawn between politicians and the professional bureaucrats.

In the Philippines, not only is the line muddled; it is also expanding rapidly to accommodate the whims and caprices of our political class, which has grown more crass -- garapal was the word David used -- over time. Where before, old-school politicians would only go so far as nudge the Commission towards a direction in their favor, today’s mayors, governors and congressmen -- from the administration and opposition alike -- shown no compunction in demanding that protégés be given or promoted to the desired position, and their political enemies removed from their present post.

Exploiting the so-called residual powers of the presidency to the hilt, the Arroyo administration has pushed the envelope in politicizing the bureaucracy much further than ever before. Today, the controversial “presidential desire letter,” which installed the least qualified but Malacañang-backed applicant, at the helm of the Development Academy of the Philippines last year, is now being issued by underlings in the President’s name. And appointments are being handed out mostly in acting capacity, to ensure that the beneficiary will always toe the Palace’s line during crunch time.

Faced with this harsh reality -- which HDN founding president Solita Monsod decried as the creeping “banality (or ordinariness) of evil,” quoting from the 2007 opus of Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo entitled “The Lucifer Effect” -- it is of little wonder then that the otherwise normally moral Filipino civil servant meekly tolerates, and even capitulates, to graft and corruption. The recent PERC survey shows just how far evil has triumphed in our benighted land.

For those interested, “The Lucifer Effect” can be downloaded through the internet as an e-Book at around US$18.

More...

28 March 2007

Hunger, rice subsidy and a feeding program

THE GOVERNMENT'S decision to push through with its feeding program as a belated response to the hunger issue, widely rebuked by the opposition as a political stunt, clouds its modest beginnings, insofar as Naga and 24 other Philippine cities are concerned.

Our first encounter with providing rice subsidy to school children came through the Street and Urban Working Children Project (SUWCP), an AusAid-funded initiative that the DILG implemented early in the decade. But it needs to be underscored that the incentive is aimed at improving school attendance and minimizing dropout; the hunger part is merely secondary.

When AusAid discontinued funding for the SUWCP after its project life expired, only Naga of the 25 original pilot cities continued with the initiative. Our City Social Welfare and Development Office, under its head Jimmy Reblando, rebranded it as Sanggawadan, a Bikol word which loosely means "helping raise up." Because of its strong educational orientation, the Naga City School Board adopted the program two years ago by providing regular funding support under its annual budget. Even then, addressing hunger is not a stated objective of the program.

Last year, however, we moved beyond Sanggawadan by introducing a focused feeding program called Nutri-Dunong, impelled by results of an Operation Timbang survey which showed that 20% of those enrolled in public schools have "below normal" weight.

Nutri-Dunong tapped the City Nutrition unit headed by Teresita "Baby" del Castillo, who worked with public schools in holding feeding sessions for the affected school children, using a variety of menus it specially developed for the purpose. Similar to Sanggawadan, it was supported by funds allocated by the School Board. Clearly, this initiative have strong anti-hunger dimensions, unlike Sanggawadan.

When we were deliberating on the proposed 2007 School Board budget -- which provided extended funding for Nutri-Dunong -- Vice Mayor Gabby Bordado, who pushed for the feeding program after validating the need for it during our series of school-based consultations last year, reported that improvements were made in around 60% of the beneficiaries during the pilot stage.

Why did I bring this up? For a number of reasons. One, the national government has clearly lifted off its response to the hunger issue from from a successful localization initiative, straight from a local government playbook. While on one hand, it affirms the correctness of what we had been doing all along, it also demonstrates the center's oh-so-slow reactive response to a lingering problem.

Two, rice subsidy must be differentiated from a feeding program. Our experience shows they have related, but clearly different objectives. The latter is a decidedly more congruent response to the hunger problem. In a way, therefore, the senators are correct in specifying milk, coco-pan de sal and vegetable-based noodles, instead of rice, as a response to malnutrition among school children.

Finally, one has to question the timing of all of these. If hunger has been at the 19% record levels since 2004, why did it took the national government three years to put this issue on the table, and only after that damning SWS survey came out?

More...

27 March 2007

How not to implement an IT program

BURIED in the pages of last week's Bicol Mail is a story on how automation can really screw up what used to be acceptable public service. A good teaser that immediately crossed my mind is this entry's title. Feel free to suggest better ones.

The agency involved is the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), a state monopoly whose adventures with the so-called eCard system, and its most recent iteration, the eCard Plus has only made life miserable among its members.

Being a state monopoly, it faces no competition in delivering insurance and allied services to the more than 1 million state workers in the Philippines. And thus it continues to get away with sloppy service that would otherwise be unacceptable elsewhere.

The following account from Sorsogon City is heartbreaking, but I think is typical of what is happening all over the country:

Non-remittance of pensions, unpaid dividends, delayed posting of premium and loan payments, tedious process, lost bank deposits, empty ATM accounts.

These were just some of the complaints from members that were flooding the GSIS office here, and the complainants were growing everyday.

Many of the complaining members were teachers who said that the introduction of the Electronic card just made it harder for them to transact business despite assurances from the GSIS that it would solve their woes.

The teachers, who refused to be identified for fear of being black listed, said that despite the use of the supposedly new technology by the GSIS still their records were not up to date including premium and loan payments.

Some employees of the Philippine Information Agency, who also requested anonimity for the same reason, (said) that before the introduction of the E-card they regularly received dividends through check but it had stopped for the last two years and nothing was credited to their e-cards.

Another teacher also (said) her loan was approved since February and that she was told that it had already been credited to her e-card but in fact none was deposited when she checked it through an ATM this month.

Guardians of old age pensioners were also complaining about the tedious process required again now that the GSIS was renewing the e-card to upgrade its services.
And yet its tagline claims: "Kahit Saan, Kahit Kailan Maaasahan"! What gall!

I hope the 7 fighting for the last 4 Senate slots are listening. Want a killer issue that can vault you safely into the Magic 12? Here's one: Promise the 1.5 million government workers all over the country that you will commit at least half of your time as senator breathing down the GSIS's neck to ensure that its automation program works "kahit saan, kahit kailan."

That's no less than 3 million votes in the bag, Garci or no Garci.

More...

26 March 2007

Diminished leaders, or a pool of inferior choices?

THREE QUICK points in reaction to Manolo's column today, using our experience in Naga as reference. Whether a local experience like ours will hold water at the national level is entirely another matter, so let me proceed with this caveat in mind.

1. Clear mandate, not majority. When Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo won for the first time in 1988, he won by a margin of less than 1,000, over a field at least four candidates. At best, his mandate was by merely plurality. But the results, including that slim winning edge, were accepted by all other parties to the election, particularly then well-known lawyer and current LTO Bicol chief Ramon Roco, younger brother of the late Sen. Raul Roco, who placed second. Further, only three of the elected city councilors came from his ticket; the rest, lionized in local media as the "Magnificent Seven," belonged to Roco's camp.

But that did not prevent him from going against vested interests -- like jueteng and other forms of illegal gambling, lewd show operators, ghost employees and public transport terminal operators -- even to the extent that he had to sever ties with his uncle, then Camarines Sur governor and now 2nd district congressman Luis Villafuerte. Bicol Mail editor Joe Perez's column here has the details on what triggered their split.

2. Inferior choices = diminished leaders. I agree, however, when Manolo said, echoing what GMA declared in her SONA, that our debased and degenerate system has a lot to do with the kind of presidents we have had.

This system is dominated by powerful gatekeepers that frown on well-meaning outsiders and lone rangers -- like Roco and Jovito Salonga -- who are bigger risks to their political and business interests. The media, especially TV, is also a party to it, with its inane programming content biased towards the bottomline instead of the vital public service function they are supposed to perform. So what you get are inferior choices in a pool that gets shallower every time since EDSA '86, and voters who mostly don't know any better.

3. Public participation depends on the space allowed it. If public participation appears to have peaked, it is because our national leaders and their cohorts find it to their advantage to either lay off and do nothing, or worse constrict if not castrate, the democratic space available for its survival and development.

In Naga, for instance, the Sangguniang Panlungsod strictly enforced the Local Government Code provision for NGO accreditation, and went beyond it: they were later federated into what became the Naga City People's Council (NPCP) which selects their own representatives to all local special bodies, up to all standing committees of the sanggunian; and participation by organized groups and individual citizens was welcomed as a strategy to promote inclusivity and sustainability.

In short, the city government realized the value of participation, embraced it and let it flower, in the process sacrificing short-term gains and benefits that can be derived from complete lack of transparency that attends Philippine governance as we know it today. You cannot say the same thing about GMA and her administration.

The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that Urbano's prescriptions on the flawed design of our democracy make sense. If democracy is thriving at some key nondescript communities at the local level, far from the radar of Imperial Manila, the system must explicitly allow them to both flourish at the periphery and inform/reform the center.

More...

Dangerous to your health

...ESPECIALLY if you are a lowly motorbiker.

Last night, on my way home after a quick trip to the city center at around 6pm, an eager beaver white Mitsubishi L-300 van ran me off the road near the Caceres Sports Arena along San Felipe.

For about a kilometer, a convoy of solidly built vehicles coming from the city's uplands -- with passenger jeepneys interspersed -- passed me by, beginning at the Peñafrancia Church; but they were at least cruising patiently at less than normal speed. Then came that L-300 van charging, overtaking another vehicle at the convoy's tail, apparently wanting to rejoin the head of the pack.

But when he made that maneuver, I was clearly on the right lane, with my headlights on, and there is no way he could not have seen me. Fortunately, I instinctively braked hard, slowing my Honda Wave down almost to a stand still and quickly swerved into the shoulder. Had I not done so, I would either be dead already or lying in a hospital, and this rant would not have seen the light of day: either dying with me, or in a state of suspended animation.

I have a feeling that convoy was assembled at the behest of one of the many politicians now seeking public office. From that experience -- no thanks to their undisciplined, boorish, and irresponsible drivers so very like the power-tripping fly sitting on top of their beast master -- these politicians can literally be dangerous to our health. Especially if you are a lowly motorbiker.

More...

25 March 2007

Patricia Evangelista and Joker's glass house

INQUIRER'S Patricia Evangelista has indeed come of age: from a champion public speaker, to a bratty columnist accused of writing for self-gratification, to the brave solitary voice of her generation who, unlike Tim Yap, dares to tell the world that our empress and her generals have no clothes on.

Her column today at the Inquirer is painfully spot on, particularly the following paragraphs on my favorite Bikolano senator and the glass house he has built around himself:

I interviewed Sen. Joker Arroyo, whose defense of human rights is his platform for reelection. I ask why he has been silent, and why he chooses to still run with Team Unity whose figurehead is GMA. He is offended. He was the first to speak against Palparan, he says, and the one who continually rails against human rights violations.

There are other issues, there are other issues, he repeats, labor and finance and education, and a whole host of other matters. Why must his performance on the political killings be a standard by which I should judge him? He tells me, at the end of his rant, that he expects me to be objective. I tell him I cannot be, as I am not a reporter, I’m a columnist with my own biases. And he is angry, and he walks out and tells me to do what I want.

And here I will tell you why I ask that question, why I believe that condemning political killings is the highest priority. I agree that there are other issues. I agree that labor and the economy and a thousand other matters must be considered. I believe, however, that this issue is at the forefront; and that condemning is far different from acting; and that men like Joker Arroyo, by virtue of both their records and their claims, cannot afford to be neutral in their actions, if not their words.
Patricia's prose today is dark and brooding, a stark departure from her hopeful take on the Filipino diaspora that won her the 2004 International Public Speaking competition conducted by the English Speaking Union (ESU) in London.

But as apologists for the administration and the military establishment are wont to say, we are but a reflection of our times. Only that they are inside their glass house, and we are not. And so we need not take refuge in that last argument of the indefensible.

More...

24 March 2007

A different view of the 'Circus'

THE 'Circus,' as Donald of Avenue Square called it, descended into town yesterday. And for just a day, the hoi polloi from all over Camarines Sur took over Naga's party place, powered by Kampi's fabled treasure trove that appeared formidable indeed.

I knew the Team Unity candidates are in town, as hours before firecrackers boomed even in broad daylight and reports of heavy traffic came from many directions, owing to a motorcade organized by Rep. Luis Villafuerte. In times like these, you really feel blessed having a nimble scooter that brings you around in ease.

On our way back, my wife opted for Shakey's at Avenue Square instead of Greenwich at the city center, obliged by my eldest son's incessant reminder to bring him a 'Bunch of Lunch'. I had second thoughts, as Plazas Rizal, Quezon and Quince Martirez were uncharacteristically quiet: the throng had to be somewhere else. So when we neared Avenue, my hunch was proven correct, and my first instinct was to drive away, but my wife prevailed: "We're here already," she said.

If the Kampi faithfuls were all over the Square, Joker Arroyo's campaigners -- boosted by a brass band, no less -- dwarfed all the other TU candidates in many ways: support vehicles, tarpaulin streamers, and election giveaways such as fans, t-shirts and the like. The pricey tarpaulin streamers, especially, are all over Bicol, even its island provinces, prompting a complaint from Catanduanes Tribune captioned, "Joker doesn't need this." So, a truly well-funded campaign is what Joker traded himself for, I told myself.

While waiting for Lynn to finish her meal, I was trying to look for the other candidates, but they were not around. Later, I found out that Lakas-CMD is having a simultaneous event at the Provincial Capitol 12 kms away, complete with TV coverage to boot. So, the father and the son are clearly still at it, evidently.

The final confirmation came from the gig that Gov. LRay Villafuerte hosted himself. Senatorial aspirant Vicente Magsaysay, a fellow governor from Zambales, stole the thunder when he took centerstage after a lengthy generous introduction by their young host. After his usual campaign spiel, he ended with a bombshell that sounded like the following according to those who saw it on TV:

"Kung natatakot sila Mike (Defensor) at Ralph (Recto) na sabihin ito, ako hindi. Villafuerte vs. Villafuerte? Masama yun. Ba't hindi kayo magkaayos? I will bring both of you together to talk things over.

"Why don't you be a good son to your father?" was how Magsaysay reportedly ended his unsolicited advice.

While this was going on, Defensor's hand was slashing on his neck, frantically gesturing to the emcee to cut off Magsaysay's mike before more damage is done. LRay can only smile, but I think he took a mental note of that offensive stunt. And I will not be surprised if Magsaysay loses badly in the province come election day (he is not doing well in surveys anyway).

But then again, I think it was not a loose cannon at play. With nothing to lose, Magsaysay decided to speak the unspeakable, and let loose the party elders' frustration over what's happening, hoping to iron out a kink in the administration coalition. Whether this tack succeeds remains to be seen.

More...

23 March 2007

A worried son as school year winds down

LAST NIGHT, Lynn and I were intently watching The Holiday, one of those feel-good romantic comedies that we always have a soft spot for. Technical troubles notwithstanding, arising mainly from its DivX format that my player has trouble rendering -- like dialogs being left behind by the visuals -- we managed to finish it around 30 minutes longer than usual.

My son Jack Ryan aka Budi was another source of distraction. When the movie started getting interesting -- especially when Amanda (Cameron Diaz) suddenly discovered that the man-about-town Graham (Jude Law) she is falling for is actually a single parent of two wonderful girls -- Budi was assiduously engaging her mother in a serious conversation about his probable end-of-term ranking. There were instances that their chatter was actually getting under my skin.

But looking back at it now, I started to feel sorry that I acted that way, and sorrier that I did not do more to assuage Budi's worries. My son -- a Grade V student at Grandview Elementary who is vigorously competitive in most everything unlike his elder brother Ezekiel who has taken an increasingly lackadaisical attitude towards his 2nd year studies -- fears his efforts to do better will probably come to naught. His main concern is losing ground in extracurricular points, owing to faith-imposed limitations, to his classmates who are freer to pretty much do what needs to be done.

On the way home yesterday, I passed by parents and children proudly marching at the Pacol Elementary grounds, where EK graduated on top his class two years back. And that is the benchmark that Budi also wants to equal. How time really flies! Recognition events are starting to take place left and right in the city. I became so immersed into my own professional challenges that I failed to realize that the current school year -- insofar as the public schools in Naga are concerned -- is ending pretty soon.

Over breakfast this morning, I made up to Budi by assuring him that we are happy with the efforts he exerted towards his goal this year; whatever the final outcomes will be, we will always be on his side. The challenge, as always, is to do better the next time around: he will have to redouble his efforts more consistently, reduce the time he spends on the Playstation 2 machine and gallivanting with his friends from Pacol Urban, and commit to creating a wide enough margin in academics that extracurricular points will not easily overcome.

Sometimes I wish that Ezekiel will regain the fierce competitive spirit that Budi has, because I know he can be among the best if he wants to. But everytime I wake up very early in the morning to get him ready for school, and then wake him up from sleep so that we can be at Cam High before 6am, I can sense that he -- and that lanky frame of his -- finds no joy out of this punishing routine. So I always end up wishing differently: maybe this is all for the better.

So that my children will enjoy school and the unique experience it brings, which I mostly did not had: because I chose to join the exhausting, feverish rat race instead of enjoying the view and smelling the flowers on my journey through youth.

More...

22 March 2007

Losing by default

My maiden column already came out in Vox Bikol that hit the newsstands today. This is my second article.

A SCHEDULING quirk had me flying from Manila to Legazpi City last Tuesday morning via Philippine Airlines. The flight was not full, but only a few seats were vacant. But immediately, you can feel that tourism is picking up. There was a group of Japanese businessmen in their suits, in spite of the warm weather early that morning that would only get hot later; behind them are a handful of Europeans should either be going to Donsol or the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex in Pili.

But if PAL seems to be doing well – expected as air travel will peak this summer – Cebu Pacific must be doing much better. During the RDC meeting I attended two weeks ago, a letter from Gateways 21 Holidays was among the attachments to the agenda folder; it announced the introduction of an additional flight that will compete head-on with PAL in the morning time slot starting March 22. In fact, by leaving from Manila at 6:05am, it will bring travelers to Legazpi an hour earlier than its rival, and consequently Manila-bound passengers aboard the return flight.

Visit their respective websites – thanks to the wonders of online booking and ticketing – and you will see why: if you can plan your trips early and stick to it, a one-way Cebu Pacific ticket entitling you a flight onboard the newer Airbus aircraft can only be had for about P1,107, inclusive of taxes and other charges. That’s only about 300 pesos more than the best bus ride available between Manila and Legazpi, onboard the 29-seater aircon coaches that have become the gold standard for land travel to Bicol: definitely not bad if you consider the troubles, not to mention the body pains, that come freely with a nine-hour ride through the pockmarked Quirino Highway!

Compare this with PAL’s P2,843 for the same route, or the P3,252 I paid for the shorter Naga-Manila trip via its sister company Air Philippines, and you will understand why the Gokongwei’s Cebu Pacific has put fear into the eyes of Lucio Tan’s two airlines.

Cebu Pacific’s advantage lies in its early headstart over competitors in adopting the new air travel business model that has actually taken the world by fire: the no-frills, low-cost, affordable flight that boldly promises that it is now time for every Juan to fly. This business model was actually pioneered by Southwest in the US, embraced by Ryanair in Europe, and is the same one powering Tiger Airways and Air Asia in Southeast Asia, which fly to the Philippines via Clark in Angeles, Pampanga.

Why did I bring this up? Because by inaction or lack of imagination of our leaders, especially those who are supposed to have the President’s ear, all of Camarines Sur – including the cities of Naga and Iriga – is missing the benefits of this revolution by default. Actually, Cebu Pacific already looked at the Naga Airport in Pili, indicating interest, because at one point in time they will need additional utilization for new Airbus aircrafts that are in the pipeline. But our airport’s 1,106-meter runway, according to Wikipedia, is not enough to meet the minimum requirements of these planes. The existing Legazpi airport, on the other hand, is 2,280 meters long, although the useful part is actually shorter because of geographical constraints arising from the hills in Daraga.

Ravines at both ends of the existing runway limit its further extension. I am not an engineer, but I would like to think it is an engineering problem that can be solved by an engineering solution. If bridges can be built over rivers and waterways, why not a bridge-like runway extension over the ravines at the far end near Isarog? But quarrying has tremendously lowered the other side, one may argue. But can not earth moved away by quarrying be capable of being moved back, raised up and compacted enough to support the other end of this bridge-like structure?

Look, losing the planned Bicol International Airport to Daraga is bad enough. Initial conservative estimates put its cost at P3.44 billion, and the most optimistic schedule will only see its completion by 2010. I don’t think a bridge-like runway extension – if it were technologically feasible – will cost that much. And even if it were to cost at least half of the amount, it should be the minimum concession Camarines Sur’s leaders should get – if only they are not obsessed with and blinded by short-term political domination and bloodletting that characterize the ongoing electoral exercise.

More...

21 March 2007

The party that jueteng built?

WHILE reading through the GMA Network news website last night, this item also grabbed my interest. Again, it is yet another proof that the spat between Kampi president and 2nd district representative Luis Villafuerte and his son, Camarines Sur Gov. LRay who belongs to Lakas-CMD, shows no signs of abating.

That news item shows that jueteng, that illegal numbers game that triggered Erap Estrada's downfall, is one reasons behind the split, with no less than Bicol's police chief Gen. Ricardo Padilla as the newest casualty.

If you find that report wanting in details, this column by Ray Marfil that appeared in Abante Tonite provides additional juicy details.

This Kampi-Lakas bloodletting has far reaching ramifications. For one, in spite of pronouncements to the contrary, the former is definitely riding high on successful raids on the Lakas faithful, buoyed by party switchers like Bulacan Gov. Josie de la Cruz and Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia. So much so that Rep. Villafuerte now wants equal status for Kampi and Lakas in the administration coalition when the next Congress opens.

But then again, what else is new? Maybe this, especially the section on current officials and notable members. Immediately, two cliches come to mind: If Max's is the house that fried chicken built, what does that make of Kampi? And if today it wants a pari passu treatment -- on strength of increasing membership -- even before election day, doesn't that make Kampi the dominant party in jueteng?

More...

20 March 2007

High Court sacks CA justice in Naga case

I SAW it on TV this evening, but did not get the name of the Court of Appeals justice dismissed by the Supreme Court. But this story from the GMA Network website identified him as Associate Justice John Elvi Asuncion.

The name immediately rang a bell, so I checked my previous posts on the ejection case against the Naga city government that started with this. True enough, the CA decision that Regional Trial Court Judge Filemon Montenegro used as basis for his controversial order ejecting the city government from the City Hall compound came from Asuncion's division.

What triggered Asuncion's downfall? The SC decision here contains the following unsigned complaint:

February 17, 2006

Hon. Artemio V. Panganiban
Chief Justice, Supreme Court
Padre Faura, Manila

Sir:

Please direct an immediate judicial audit on Court of Appeals Justice Elvi Asuncion.

This magistrate has been sitting on motions for reconsideration for six months to more than a year unless the parties come across.

This CA Justice is an unmitigated disgrace to the judiciary. How he ever reached his lofty position is truly disconcerting. He is a thoroughly CORRUPT person who has no shame using his office to extort money from litigants. He is equally, if not more, deprave than Demetrio Demetria who was dismissed by the Supreme Court. Asuncion deserves not only dismissal but DISBARMENT as well. Because the law profession should also be purged of CROOKS like him.

I hope you can terminate his service in the judiciary ASAP to save the institution. Thank you.

Very truly yours,

AN AGGRIEVED PARTY
The Heirs of Jose and Helen Mariano vs. City of Naga did not figure in that SC decision. But I am quite sure it is one of the cases Asuncion deliberately failed to resolve on time that, together with gross ignorance of the law, prompted his dismissal.

More...

Politics again trumps sanity

A FUNNY, SAD thing happened in the ongoing workshop called by the NEDA Regional Office in Legazpi City to refine the Bicol Rehabilitation Plan which I blogged about here and here. I am already writing this post since my part is practically done before the lunchtime break; the other LGU participants are still wheeling around the regional line agencies in the conference room.

I sat with the group consisting of line departments that have firm funding support under the P5.025-billion kitty approved by Congress. After consulting with the Department of Health representative, it was the DPWH's turn. The agency's lady rep was very patient, accommodating and quite forthcoming.

"Are the projects listed here already final?" I asked.

"More or less," she said.

After going through the list, I said: "There's nothing on Naga here."

"That was based on the damage report submitted to us by the Second Engineering District. Maybe the national roads in your place did not really suffer much damage." Thinking back, maybe she's right; it actually was a left-handed compliment to the quality of roads built there by the DPWH, although I did not press her about the big difference between city government estimates, which is substantially lower than that of the DPWH.

"Your list also does not include a single project for the 4th District of Camarines Sur. Do you mean to tell me Super Typhoon Reming did not hit the Partido area?" Reming, it will be recalled, entered Luzon via Tiwi, Albay, which is just adjacent to Sagnay and the district.

"We're only doing what we were told," was the excuse she gave. Who did the telling, she did not explain. But the list actually supplied the answer: the congressional districts of the pro-Arroyo representatives expectedly got the lion's share -- Lagman, Salceda, Villafuerte, Alfelor and Andaya. That it's payback time is as clear as the light of day.

The big loser, aside from Naga, is that district of former House Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella -- the Villafuertes' traditional rival since the turn of the 20th century -- which got zilch, zero, nada. What adds insult to injury is this entry in Wikipedia on the congressional districts of Camarines Sur that brands him "corrupt" and his son "corrupt bakla." As if their fellow contemporary politicians are as clean as snow in our benighted land, and now Asia's most corrupt according to the PERC.

More...

19 March 2007

Discovering 'Sarong Banggi' via Bikol bloglandia

READING through my blogroll last night, not only did I discover Ian Rosales Casocot by way of Gibbs Cadiz but more importantly a 2006 dark indie movie whose title is lifted from Potenciano Gregorio's haunting "Sarong Banggi," Bikolandia's unofficial anthem.

Why did it not register in my consciousness? Mainly because it was overshadowed by the trailblazing, multi-awarded "Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros" that took the country -- or at least the serious moviegoing class -- by storm. If you want proof that "Sarong Banggi" is worth your while, just look at its poster: Jacklyn Jose earned another Urian plum as best actress on the strength of her performance as an aging prosti.

An idea of the movie strengths and weaknesses is indicated by this external review page by way of the Internet Movie Database, which features articles from the Inquirer, Mindanews' Gail Ilagan, Ronald Cruz aka Film Otaku and the Pink Coffee-sipping Soul Princess. (Warning: some contain spoilers that will give the plot away.)

Casocot's piece that Gibbs Cadiz's article on Kris Aquino linked to is somewhat familiar. Previously, I have written that Kris -- for all the criticisms coming her way -- remains compelling because her life has become our national telenovela. Casocot goes a step further and argues that hers is a life we have always silently aspired to, and therefore deserves a little understanding.

But it is Gibbs' article, always written in a light, entertaining tone that camouflages a cutting commentary, that unleashed my own youthful memories. The Lux ad from his baul reminded me of one of the Sports Flash issues in the late 80's that I religiously bought. It was heady post-EDSA days when the Aquinos can do no wrong and the youthful Kris made its cover as guest of honor of the newly opened PBA conference. She was gushing about Alvin Patrimonio at the time, and I in turn had a fleeting crush on her.

Over the years, I outgrew my adolescence watching Kris Aquino invade the silver screen, tragically shuttle from one man to another in search of a father figure and Prince Charming rolled into one, and in the process get embroiled in one controversy after another that only helped cement her celebrity status. In some ways, she is a veritable twin of the toothless comic Rene Requiestas, another tragic celebrity who died heartbroken because one of the senatorial candidates now running stole the object of her affection.

This zoo-owning senatoriable must be one of the politicos that must have made Bill Shimizu puke in this post. Elsewhere in Bikol bloglandia, UP-based writer Vic Nierva puts forward Bikol translation of two English poems by a 19th century Jesuit poet. Kristian Cordero, on the other hand, rhymes about intimations of his own mortality. Rizaldy Realubit offers his first published short story, and hopes that table tennis will experience a resurgence like swimming where Naga has made its mark nationwide. Maryanne Moll is back in Manila, in the arms of his beloved, and is ecstatic about making it to Nostalgia Manila.

Irvin Sto. Tomas continues stringing his rollicking list of English titles that can't be translated into Filipino, this time moving into songs. Inggitero gives us an insider's look into the latest happenings within the city hall IT agencies in his maiden post. From faraway Singapore, former Naga EDP head Dune Padre is ecstatic about a fried fish dish that made him feel like, and pine for, home. (Felt exactly the same way whenever I fry the dried pusit in our Cambridge graduate students accommodation a few years back, to the consternation of my flatmates!)

And from pages of GMANews.tv, Jobart Bartolome writes about famous brands that we have borrowed to become the de facto word for the generic, and why "kodakan" seems on the way out in this age of digital cameras. (Sweet justice: two Kodak digital cameras I bought in succession ended up as lemons after warranty, unlike their durable Canon or Sony counterparts.)

More...

18 March 2007

UAP-PICE war escalates in the week that was

SEN. AQUILINO Pimentel visited Naga two weeks ago to headline a seminar on the controversial Republic Act 9266 or the Architectural Law of 2004 sponsored by the local chapter of the United Architects of the Philippines. In that seminar, Pimentel cautioned the UAP against a head-on collision with their nemesis, the Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers (PICE), and instead called on the Professional Regulations Commission to broker talks to put their row to rest.

But the UAP ignored their guest's advice and has escalated the conflict, starring Arch. Hernani Aguilar, the city building official, who chose to reject the building application of no less than PICE-Naga's president Don Santy. All the details are available from the banner headline of Bicol Mail -- which thankfully is back online.

What the online version, however, does not have is a Page 2 paid ad of the PICE calling on all civil engineers to stand up for their rights. The call is anchored on three documents: (1) Mayor Robredo's reminder to Aguilar that a preliminary injunction on the new IRR of the Building Code is in effect and advised him to observe lawful orders; (2) former DPWH Sec. Hermogenes Ebdane's memorandum directing all building officials to discontinue carrying out the questioned provision of the Building Code IRR until further orders; and (3) a Legal Opinion issued by City Legal Officer Nelson Legacion in response to a query of Arch. Juan Villegas, then City Planning and Development Coordinator, sustaining the PICE's position.

How this plays out remain to be seen, especially since both Pimentel and Atty. Pio Martin Gerardo Borja, UAP legal counsel, have both pointed out that no such injunction on RA 9266 exists and the law continues to be in force since its approval and publication in the Official Gazette three years ago.

Elsewhere, Bong Villafuerte might end up facing his younger brother and incumbent Gov. LRay in the gubernatorial race after term-limited Baao Mayor Melquiades Gaite begs off and decides to run for vice mayor instead. Last Friday, LRay went on air to denounce reports that he had been stripped of the authority to appoint Lakas candidates as provincial head, pointing towards his father's direction as source of this disinformation.

With two weeks to go before the start of local campaigns, all is still not well in the Villafuerte camp riven by the Lakas-Kampi intramurals. And with Gaite's decision, we are seeing in Baao -- home town of Joker Arroyo and the reputedly more enlightened politicians in the province -- decency, or whatever tiny bit of it that remains, flying out of the window. It rivals the recent decision of incumbent Magarao Mayor Lourdes "Unding" Señar to seek another term, this time with his husband Salvador aka Bading as running mate.

Vox Bikol and Bikol Reporter both declare that Albay will get the lion share of the public works component of the P5-billion Bicol Rehab Fund. Happy days are truly back in the province that gave us the P250-million and counting Pantao Port anomaly, which Senator Panfilo Lacson fingers on two Bikolano legislators, one of whom has left Congress for Malacañang. Now I understand why the same guy said on primetime news that jueteng is too small for him. Tim Yap will surely enjoy his company.

In the punditocracy, Bicol Mail's editorial chides Diosdado "Dato" Arroyo for choosing Batangueño Manuel "Ower" Andal (who I previously mistook as the Arroyos' cabalen) of the Philcomsat infamy as campaign manager and another Batangueño transplant as spokesman, betraying his lack of trust on locals. Vox Bikol, on the other hand, takes issue with the David-vs-Goliath frame that is defining the Abang Mabulo-vs-Dato Arroyo fight in the first congressional district, claiming that reputation and performance-wise the former is actually a Goliath. In begging the "which is which?" angle, the editorial comes up with this money quote:

For the voters of the First District of Camarines Sur, the answer to these questions is gravely important. It will reveal not only who would win, but more importantly, what they consider the election is all about.
Bikol Reporter bats for changing Plaza Quezon's name to Plaza Arejola, arguing that the name change affirms "that Naga today loves not Quezon less but it loves Arejola more and it resolved to give...honor long due him." Its columnist behind "Ini an Totoo" seconds the motion. Lawyer Luis Ruben General however vehemently disagrees in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Bicol Mail two weeks back, and still unavailable online. General argues the city should leave Plaza Quezon alone, in honor of the former president who helped crystallize the concept of nationhood during his tenure.

The Catanduanes Tribune apologizes to Bato Mayor Lorenzo Templonuevo over an unintended slant arising from its headline, but bats for more more transparency among local government units, using Local Governance Reports produced under the Local Governance Performance Management System (LGPMS). But when I checked, the LGPMS website, remains largely a promise, especially for guest users of the system.

More...

17 March 2007

Schools of thought on Adsense

FOUR fellow "serious" bloggers weighed in on my recent post regarding the measly $1 credited to my Google Adsense account 45 days after enroling.

Urbano empathized with my disappointment. In his case, at $1 per month, he was doing better than my batting average; even then, the puny earning is definitely not worth the invaluable lessons on urban development he shares with readers. So off the ads went.

Maryanne Moll agrees wholeheartedly, ditching the ads that merely messed up the design of her blog -- which she really liked -- after a week or two of test drive. She even prefers the old Blogger software over the new one, which does not render the Scribe template well in its default mode, unless one tinkers with the HTML code under the hood. Not to disrespect Oliver, but I agree with Maryanne that Scribe in the old Blogger did look much better.

Dominique, on the other hand, encouraged me not to give up just yet. In his case, it took him only three years -- not the 12.5 I arrived at -- to hit $100. Yes, Adsense will not earn one a living like Maryanne said, but there are silly laughs that come with the ritual of checking the latest Adsense tally.

Irvin did not seem to give a damn, but it is because his blogging sofware (or is it webhost provider?...hell whatever) does not accept codes that allow ad placement. But I have a feeling he is interested, given the traffic he generates out of Filipinizing the English language. Just check his latest post on English films and their Pinoy translation, which had Dune Padre crying out laughing.

This conversation underscores certain realities about the internet economy and the Google business model that is helping power it. An obvious one, I think, is that it does not reward quality; just look at the Pinoy Top Blogs that Irvin mentioned and you will see what I mean. Which actually mirrors our society at large and their preferences: if Filipinos are voting with their feet because the Philippines seem so hopeless, the Pinoy online community is voting with their clicks -- to our dismay.

But blogging for the committed is not about Adsense alone; ads are actually icing on the cake, which one can dispense with. Blogging is really that cake: it is about getting a voice and making it heard; it is about community building using internet technologies that bring distant places together; it is about sharing what one knows so that lessons learned elsewhere can be applied to make life better; it is about celebrating life and its complexities expressed only in the choicest words.

More...

Viral marketing; Blogging as teaching tool

THIS comment from Felize Angela Mendoza aka Angel of the Philippine Science High School reminded me of Cyberbaguioboy's entry on aspiring filmmaker Paolo Dy and viral marketing, and nudged me to check the link.

Inspired by what I saw, not so much the video I did not see, I added the following (edited) comment:

Much as I want to comment on the content of the video, YouTube is taking like forever to load on my 52kbps Blast-powered connection at home where I write this at this unholy hour (a little past 2am). What more if it’s already daytime and there are more people competiting for this very narrow pipe.

Anyway, let me just congratulate Martin Perez for demonstrating the potential of blogging as a teaching tool. I already posted somewhere in my blog a vision of seeing all public school students in Naga blogging to their hearts content.

IT investments in the public school system are fine. But only a teacher who is comfortable with technology and makes the most out of these tools to point his students towards the limitless possibilities available can accelerate the process.

I’ll add you in my blogroll, and hope to inspire our local teachers to do the same.:)
I tried it already but I think the HTML code of this blog is still not yet YouTube-ready, so this link to their video will have to do for the meantime.

How about it, Naga City Science High, the ESEP classes of Camarines Sur High and of course, the Goa campus of Pisay?

More...

15 March 2007

NPM and the Philippine LGUs

I HAVE always been a fan of Juan Mercado, and his newest gem here is not only remarkably spot on but largely coincides with our own assessment of the Philippine experience with decentralization.

I reached this conclusion -- and more -- after tracking down and reading through Balisacan, Hill and Piza's paper entitled "Regional Development Dynamics and Decentralization in the Philippines: Ten Lessons from a 'Fast Starter'" which you can download here.

Compare that with Mayor Robredo's presentation entitled "Policy Issues and Challenges in Local Governance" before a delegation of Asian NGO leaders in August 2006, and you will begin to understand why decentralization in Philippine governance that took off in 1991 is a mixed bag of neither-here-nor-there outcomes.

Let me tie that in with some of the key insights I got out of participating in the recent NPM online seminar sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and my trip to Albay last Tuesday.

A fundamental element of the NPM philosophy is the "lean state" -- a critical approach to public management which analyzes whether the tasks of the state (1) are ones it really has to perform; (2) are being performed at the correct level; (3) can be actually be performed by others subject to its supervision; and (4) are not actually being performed, but urgently needed by the public.

In a previous post, I already identified a perverse variant of the soft budget constraint as a stumbling block to genuine local autonomy envisioned under the 1991 Local Government Code, as can be seen from the continuing misery of families dislocated by Super Typhoon Reming and the ensuing deadly lahar mudflows from Mayon four months after the event.

To that I will add the continuing phenomenon of bloated local bureaucracies, as opposed to the lean state under the NPM conception. Again, the COA audit reports, which can be accessed here, underpin this contention. In all cases, personal services budget of local governments are almost always tilted towards the 45% limit provided by the Code, maxing it out during election years.

Compare this with the 30-35% standard for labor cost in most other activities, even in public works projects, and you see what I mean. A 10% savings from an annual budget of P300-400 million, for instance, will already fund one of the permanent relocation sites identified in the P13.4-billion Bicol Rehabilitation Plan.

Why does this phenomenon persist in the Philippines? One, the stiff competition for local power -- mediated through elections which are increasingly becoming costly -- is a main driver. Applying the public choice theory, it is said that the primary duty of politicians is to get reelected. This explains why there is no incentive to cut down on production costs -- including labor, as what one normally does in business -- if that is what will guarantee reelection.

Another is the common, popular view of the state as one big welfare agency, where permanent positions in government are the safest available, practically guaranteeing a decent life to its holder. In many areas, these can even be inherited, where dependents of a retiree are prioritized in appointing replacements.

Surely, there are other factors out there, and I will encourage you to share your thoughts. But if my planned participation in the offline phase of the NPM seminar pushes through, successfully reconciling these Philippine realities with the "lean state" concept will be more than enough; the rest would be gravy.

More...

An education seminar wants you

IF YOU are a young Pinoy leader working in research, science, education, labor and youth issues, you might be interested in an international seminar on the theme "No Education: No Freedom, No Opportunity."

This seminar is part of the 2007 training program of the International Academy for Leadership (IAF) which is based in Gummersbach, Germany. Twenty-four slots are available for English and Spanish-speaking participants to this event that will take place on May 13-25, 2007.

The Academy's whole offering for the year can be accessed here.

Interested parties can email their application letters and short CVs to applications@fnf.org.ph. Deadline is on March 23.

More...

45 days later...

...AND only a measly $1 dollar to show?

I don't know if you've noticed, but this blog already has ads by way of Google Adsense.

They've been there for the last month and a half after I explored what other Google services -- aside from Blogger, Gmail, Reader, Docs and Spreadsheets, Maps and Earth -- can enhance my online experience. Adsense looked inviting. After all, many other vastly popular Filipino bloggers have wrote about what blogging bought them.

But I guess I'll have to perish the thought. At the rate I'm going, it will take me 12.5 years before I can reach $100. I'll probably be a lolo already when that time comes.:)

More...

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!

More...

Reconciliation

FRIDAY last week was a largely uneventful day for many city hall workers, and it supposed to be so for me. But for some reason, it ended most joyfully as a vicious dog bite suffered by my father about two months ago eventually led to the long-overdue reconciliation between estranged siblings.

I was meaning to write a short note about it over the weekend, but recurring incidents of telephone wire slashing -- which is becoming more and more a sadistic prank than plain thievery -- cut me, and our Grandview community, off the worldwide web.

I will not bore you will details of how the estrangement began, and how it tore apart a close-knit family apart. For they belong to the dustbin: what is important is the restored happiness, not to mention sanity, in our lives and of those we hold dear.

The face of my mother is especially bright these days, freed from the worries and the pains that she had to quietly bear through all these years. My 90ish grandfather has to be the happiest: nothing can be more painful than seeing invisible walls rising and distance growing between offsprings -- especially if you know you did everything that is humanly possible to rear them well according to what the Good Book says.

Me? Of course, I am happy for all of them: for my mother who continued to believe, and finally getting what she had been praying for; for my grandpa who really deserves to see this reconciliation happen within his lifetime; and for everyone of us in the family. I am also happy for myself, for seeing my flagging faith revived by that very act -- proving that while time heals all wounds and faith does move mountains, love truly conquers all.

More...

13 March 2007

The slowness of government

I SPENT the whole morning in Legazpi attending my first RDC meeting after a long, long while. It is also my first trip to this city of fond memories since Super Typhoon Reming, mainly because of the years I spent at Bicol University.

The destruction wrought by Reming no longer shocked me; the communities that suffered under its might have mostly sprung back to life. What really shocks is the continuing presence of relocation areas -- the temporary makeshift tents housing dislocated families -- in many elementary schools in Guinobatan close to four months after the calamity. Their presence there for two months I can understand, but four?

The proposed Bicol Rehabilitation Plan (or BRP), one of the top agenda items for the meeting, provided part of the answer, and showed why it is foolhardy to depend solely on government to get things done. Because the budget impasse was only broken before the start of the senatorial campaign, resettlement and relocation of the affected families practically moved to a standstill. And when the budget battle smokes cleared, the region only ended up with P5 billion when the plan, not to mention the Bikolano leaders behind it -- Salceda, Andaya, Joker Arroyo, Villafuerte, Lagman and their cohorts who initially promised P10 billion -- called for P13.2.

So, you end up with a situation where there are two amounts, and two tracks of official decisionmaking. On the one hand, you have the P13.2-billion BRP, a document at least half-inch thick which is closer to the realities on the ground and, having underwent completed staffwork by the NEDA regional office, is a little more transparent as projects have been neatly organized into sectors (like settlements, agriculture, trade and industry, tourism and so on and so forth), location and implementing agencies.

On the other hand, you have another rehab plan that is equally official but more importantly backed up by funding -- the P5 billion kitty authorized by Congress and approved by the president -- but is short of expectations and shorter on details, on transparency and on eventual accountability: the product of a short-circuited process negotiated between the congressmen, the provincial governors and some shadowy cabal of national officials that will more or less end up supporting the election of incumbents allied with the Arroyo administration, as Vox Bikol warned about in its recent editorial.

Which reminded me of a post-Reming conversation between Naga City Vice Mayor Gabby Bordado, Jr. and Senator Arroyo over RMN-DWNX, where the latter proudly bandied about the P10-billion Bicol Rehab Fund he is working out with Budget Secretary Andaya as their response to the Reming disaster, and assured that Naga will get its due. Gabby, of course, praised Joker to high heavens for his integrity and independence, especially in standing up to the Con-Ass assault that the president and her minions launched against the Senate. Now, three months later, it is clear as day that the city has been shafted, and Joker is back in GMA's tight embrace.

That RDC meeting is a perfect metaphor of everything that's wrong with government planning today: all the man-hours invested by the professional class and their regional leaders -- not to mention the
efforts to make it participative, transparent and equitable, in the name of good governance -- end up being trumped and dominated by a separate track that the political class lords over and is jealously protective of. No wonder planning has got to be one of the most, if not the most, frustrating job there is in the Philippine bureaucracy.

More...

12 March 2007

'Abang' and the week that was

THE INQUIRER editorial on San Fernando Mayor Sabas "Abang" Mabulo's bid against Diosdado "Dato" Arroyo, Jr. dominated last week's airwaves as well as the front and opinion pages of local papers.

For all indication, Mabulo's longshot candidacy is tapping into a powerful emotional wellspring that defies conventional thinking: whether it is powerful enough to overturn the wishes of Camarines Sur's political gods, all the way to Malacañang, remains to be seen.

For instance, Johnny Escandor's piece that appeared in today's issue of the Inquirer already came out in page 2 of Bicol Mail (again, still unavailable online); but the editors decided to put in the front page Atty. Stephen Sergio's piece entitled "Mayor Mabulo: A Don Quixote or a David against Goliath?"

Sergio started by quoting the Inquirer editorial, especially the three compelling reasons why Dato should not run unopposed, and added a fourth:

Dato Arroyo, and this has never been publicly denied, came to enrol at the Ateneo de Naga because he was "kicked in" from the Ateneo de Manila: that is to say, he did not meet the requisite academic standards there so he was given a chance to enroll in other Ateneo schools.
Sergio ended by pointing out Bikol's tradition of going against the grain when the occasion demands: together with Cavite, it is the only province that Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo won against Manuel L. Quezon; Juan Triviño's giant-killing ways against then incumbent Gov. Jose del Gallego and President Quirino's LP machinery; only to get a dose of his own medicine when he, and the NP machinery that he built as incumbent, was upset by the much-maligned Apolonio Maleniza onboard his solitary honky-tonk jeep; and when Camarines Sur gave Cory Aquino the biggest majority proportionwise during the 1986 snap polls.

He ended with this (prophetic?) gem:
Even now I can hear the battlecry: "Get the cash, but vote Sabas." Or in the language of the long-suffering Bicolano masses of the first district: An cuarta sa bulsa, an voto ki Mabulo."
Expectedly, the Bicol Mail editorial endorsed Abang, not only as the better choice but "as true defender of participative democracy and the people's right of suffrage that we Bicolanos must nurture." Retired judge Fronying Maristela said Abang is more than equal to the task of representing the first district in Congress. Bikol Reporter's op-ed says: "Dapat gabos may kalaban" (there must always be an opponent) under a democratic system and hails Abang for his principled politics.

Bicol Mail also bannered Supreme Court's decision to void the Comelec ruling unseating incumbent Legazpi City Mayor Noel Rosal in favor of losing bet Michael Imperial, paving the way for a return bout in that city by Mayon. Saint John Hospital is in trouble after its medical director resigned, the latest among a rash of resignations that hit the medical institution.

Vox Bikol says the region will get a total of P8 billion in calamity fund, which will be exempted from the election ban. Its editorial worries it will end up as calamitous "discretionary funds" that will aid in the reelection of incumbent officials.

In the punditocracy, Bicol Mail's Sandy Vargas writes from his own experience with, and rues political patronage thumping meritocracy at the Camarines Sur State Agricultural College, causing demoralization and division of ranks. Vox Bikol's Bernadette Gavino-Gumba focuses on Masbate in what promises to be her own series on poverty in the Bikol provinces. Bikol Blogger Rizaldy Manrique recounts a successful poetry-reading session at University of Nueva Caceres called "Ratsada 2007: Sarong Hapon nin Rawit-Dawit" -- featuring translated classics as well as original Bikolano pieces by the best bards of Bikolandia. Abdon Balde, Jr. meanwhile writes a naughty poem about a fighting cock that has seen better days.

In bloglandia, Gibbs Cadiz takes on Bill Shimizu's EDSA recollection, and launches into the first part of his "yellow fever" affliction. Bill, on the other hand, traces a poignant love story that explains why he is "Made in Japan." Part 3 of of Dave Oliva's not-really-Ragnarok Fantasia is already up. Irvin Sto. Tomas compares the ongoing Senate race and Season 2 of the Pinoy Big Brother and finds both to be wanting. Kristian Cordero's new poems here and here shows why he is Bikol's leading poet today. And Donald Bercasio recounts a most interesting encounter with historian Danilo Gerona.

More...

Catanduanes Tribune

WHAT IS it that brings local newspapers to, or prevents them from invading, cyberspace? This question bugged me last week after following with great interest a link to the Catanduanes Tribune from our Planet Naga blog aggregator, and just to assure myself launched searches for Bikolano newspapers with online presence both through Google and Yahoo.

Alas, in addition to Bicol Mail and the Bikol Reporter -- both of which failed to update their respective websites last week -- only Catanduanes Tribune has online presence, and a respectable archive that reaches as far back as November 2004.

Is it geography? Definitely not. Catanduanes, after all, is an island province that is peripheral, both to national and regional government agencies (the latter mostly found in Legazpi and some in Naga).

Is it the presence of educational institutions? Probably, because Naga has them. But then again, Legazpi also has the biggest state university in the region (my alma mater Bicol University) plus two other privately owned universities; yet its local papers still remain woefully analog and therefore inaccessible to Bikolano communities abroad. And again, you have Catanduanes which only has the Catanduanes State College in Virac, and probably a handful of IT education outfits.

You can go and and on about other factors -- like trading, tourism and services -- and the result would be the same paradox: how do you explain this remarkable phenomenon that is the Catanduanes Tribune?

I will hazard several four factors:

(1) A proud journalism tradition. The current Tribune issue is its first for its 27th volume; that's four years more than Bicol Mail's 23. Bicol Reporter, on the other hand, is on its 14th.

Furthermore, consider the following paragraphs from the Tribune's most recent editorial:

Although this community newspaper’s beginnings cannot be exactly described as ideal for one which has become part of Catanduanes’ history, the Tribune has changed for the better, particularly in the depth of its coverage and its readership, building on the foundation laid by its late founder, Fredeswindo T. Gianan, Sr.

Since the present management established the Tribune website on the Internet in December 2000, its readership has now grown by leaps and bounds far beyond the shores of this rocky island. And this has served the island-bound public even better.
I do not personally know the late Fred Gianan, but he was an institution in the Catandunganon media. When I still proofread Vox Bikol at the old Balalong Printing Press along Blumentritt, I would sometimes meet his staff preparing to bring their weekly issue to Virac by way of Partido. And I got to read issues of the Tribune for free.

(2) An IT-savvy management. The editorial shows a new management is on board and made the key decision to bring the Tribune to cyberspace. It tells us something about its top brass who early on saw the potential of going online, which you cannot say the same about the other weeklies in the region, particularly in the Albay area.

(3) A decent IT infrastructure. Their political differences notwithstanding, government officials of Catanduanes have made sure their province will not be left behind insofar as internet access and technologies are concerned. I heard Gov. Leandro Verceles, Jr. is into IT; so is Rep. Joseph Santiago, a former NTC commissioner.

(4) Competent workforce. Finally, I don't know how the Tribune does it (inhouse or outsourced), but maintaining an online presence requires some competent IT staff. Computer schools in Virac ties in neatly with this scenario.

Come to think of it, the value of the Tribune's continuing online presence is even more magnified by the inherent limitations it had to overcome. If only Bikol's other weeklies are as entrepreneurial and forward-looking. Perhaps this is an area that liberal, development oriented foundations -- like Friedrich Naumann -- might want to look at, tying in its advocacy for blogging with the need to bring local newsweeklies into the 21st century. Do I already see Yuga grinning?:)

More...

10 March 2007

Remembrances

BEFORE I left the office yesterday afternoon, Oliver Mendoza's entry on his wife's travails at the Pasig City Jail -- no thanks to the onion-skinned Chavit Singson and "difficult" staff at the Pasig Regional Trial Court -- popped up on my Google Reader. No wonder Mike Arroyo and Chavit are on the same side.

This reminded me of some exchanges I had with fellow NPM online seminar participants, two of whom are Philippine judges who are both proud of the reforms initiative by former Chief Justice Hilario Davide: this is Exhibit "B," your honors; the Naga City Hall ejection case, of course, is Exhibit "A".

I am looking forward to Oliver's next posts on the subject, as he promised. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that his wife is actually the Newsbreak writer I had been in touch with via email. And that it took place on their 10th wedding anniversary made my blood boil.

Taking that arrest as a "badge of honor" also reminded me of one of my very first entries, and the first that Manolo linked up to when I started blogging close to two years ago. That my colleague Joe Perez felt the same way is indicated by the fact that his Bicol Mail columns go by the name "Selda Numero 10" -- his cell assignment during those fateful days of July.

More...

09 March 2007

Now for the serious stuff?

THERE WAS a power outage in Grandview at around lunchtime when I went home. With my mother-in-law off to Pili, Lynn was all alone looking after the four kids who are not of school-age yet. So I had no other choice but to take out "turo-turo" viands and join them for lunch.

Unable to check my email via the home PC, I relied on my trusty Nokia handset to check my Gmail via WAP. There was only one new message in the inbox, short but very important. It said:

"Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have qualified to continue the NPM discussions offline in Germany."
It seems that after the fun stuff that will end today, my immersion into New Public Management principles and techniques -- barring any hitches -- will continue in Deutschland, which gave the world Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, Otto von Bismarck and the German Reich, Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

Not to mention Oktoberfest, which is slowly becoming synomous with San Miguel Beer, a Filipino icon like no other but whose flagship Pale Pilsen is in dire straits.

More...