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Pork barrel, an anti-poor system

The watershed, historic million-people rally the other day sent a loud, clear message to President Aquino: Scrap the pork-barrel system.

It is not just the gross, scandalous hijacking of taxpayers’ money by the likes of Janet Napoles, not just the hundreds of millions of pesos senators and congressman manage to siphon to their own pockets in varied ways, certainly not just greed that people from all walks of life were protesting against the other day.

They’re against the entire pork barrel, that insidious system by which legislators—whose role constitutionally is to make laws rather than direct government projects—have at their disposal hundreds of millions of pesos of taxpayers’ money to direct the use of.

What part of the loud message “Scrap pork!” that President Aquino still doesn’t understand?

Percent of households below poverty line. **PDAF funds received in 2011 and 2012 divided by the province’s population. Source of data: NSCB, DBM

Percent of households below poverty line. **PDAF funds received in 2011 and 2012 divided by the province’s population.
Source of data: NSCB, DBM

His mother President Corazon Aquino and her Machiavellian advisers probably thought of installing it in 1990 (then called Countryside Development Fund) as a way of strengthening her regime in the wake of several coup attempts against her, since the pork barrel would give the political elite a stake in the political system set up by the 1987 Constitution.

With the new pork barrel scheme, even the Marcos loyalists and coup plotters excluded from the first post-EDSA Congress would have a motivation to respect the new Constitutional order, as they could strive to be members of it in the next elections—as coup leader Gregorio Honasan in fact did—so they could have their turn to enjoy the pork.

But that was nearly three decades ago. Now, the irrationality of the pork barrel system, in its incarnation as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), its utter economic stupidity, and the waste it results in for a country with meager resources have become so obvious. No wonder not a single country in the world has a pork barrel system similar to ours.

Yet budget secretary Florencio Abad and Senate President Franklin Drilon defend the system as if it were the only kind of government budget possible. Drilon even preposterously said the other day: “If there is no pork barrel, there will be no Congress.” Without a patronage and corruption scheme, there can be no representative democracy?

Abad’s defense of pork barrel is quite understandable if you remember that his wife Henedina is the lone congressman of Batanes.

The tiny province is a stark illustration of the irrationality of the pork barrel system. Batanes with only 16,000 souls got the amount of PDAF money that bigger congressional districts do, for instance Eastern Samar, which has a population of 430,000 or 25 times the pork that island in the north got.

Batanes actually got a bigger pork barrel of P93 million in 2012, more than Eastern Samar’s P51 million. The injustice of our pork barrel system is obvious in the fact Eastern Samar is one of our poorest districts, with nearly 60 percent of families there living below the poverty line.

Batanes? If tourist brochures are to be believed, it is a small idyllic paradise, and only 21 percent of residents there poor. Most young people there leave the island as soon as they can, as they can take so much postcard-pretty scenes only for so long. Supporters of representative Abad in social media defended her pork barrel by claiming that she allocated a lot of this to upgrading roads all over Batanes. But how many cars, jeepneys, and motorbikes will be using these? Probably not more than 100.

Computed—as it should be —taking into account the population of each district or province, Batanes’s pork barrel per capita (the PDAF it received for 2011 and 2012 divided by its population) of P8,371 was by far the biggest among the 84 congressional districts.

Poverty remains the most important national agenda, with 28 percent of the population living in poverty, according to the 2012 first semester census. That means about 28 million Filipinos, a number bigger than the population of Australia or North Korea, living in misery.

As shown in the table though, the poorest districts and provinces—those with more than 40 percent of households there living below the poverty line – are getting the smallest pork barrel funds per capita compared to more well-off provinces like Batanes, Camiguin, and Siquijor.

Eastern Samar’s pork barrel computes to P322 per person; Davao Oriental, P541; and Zamboanga del Norte, P437. (Our calculation though doesn’t include the provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, since the budget and management department strangely did not post data on pork barrel releases for ARMM for 2012 in its website.)

Economics, really a science for the efficient allocation of resources developed only in the 20th century, informs us that poverty would be eradicated by economic growth and by well-thought-of programs directed towards the poorest, both necessary.

Economics and economic history also teaches that both economic growth and poverty-reduction are tackled not by distributing money to the population, which isn’t really feasible, or even to the poorest sector of the population, as this government’s conditional cash-transfer program has been doing.

While a complex set of policies and programs that create conditions for the development of firms’ and individuals’ productivity are necessary, these require focused, directed programs.

For example, one of the most successful economic growth and poverty-reduction programs in the country was that led by the US in 1989 called the Multilateral Assistance Initiative-Philippine Aid Program, which focused about $1 billion (P30 billion at the exchange rate at that time) in financial aid from Japan and Europe to a small area centered in General Santos City, to build roads and other infrastructure.

The infrastructure created conditions for reducing poverty in the area, for instance since transport costs from farms to the cities were drastically reduced, increasing farmers’ income. Efficient ports and refrigerated warehousing facilities gave fishermen better prices for their catch.

Another example would be a program to transform the coconut industry in the country, either by replanting coconut areas with new high yielding varieties or planting entirely different crops.

This would drastically reduce, even eradicate, poverty in the entire country because the poorest in our country are those in coconut farms, since most of their coconut trees are more than 40-years in age, their output falling every year. Our coconut farmers are helpless in this structure, as they don’t have the money to replant their nearly senile coconut trees.

With 3.4 million hectares planted to coconuts, and with replanting costs of P50,000 per hectare, the P74.4 billion Aquino so far gave away in pork barrel funds would have replanted 1.5 million hectares, 40 percent of coconut lands.

If the P105 billion devoted to the conditional cash transfer program (for 2011, 2012 and this year)—Aquino’s parallel program to his pork barrel scheme to directly buy the masses’ loyalty—were instead also used for such a purpose, all of the 3.4 million coconut lands would be modernized, ending poverty in our country within Aquino’s term.

The gigantic purchasing power of at least 10 million landowners and workers in the coconut industry liberated from poverty would in turn make a vast market for Philippine industries, creating a virtuous cycle of growth.

But we’re dreaming the impossible, at least for the remaining three years of Aquino’s administration.