Soliman, Abad dupe ‘Open Government’ body

Secretaries Corazon Soliman and Florencio Abad have accomplished a major feat that could be likened to pork-barrel queen Janet Lim Napoles winning a trophy as one of Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service.

What the Soliman-Abad team achieved was to get the newly organized international body, “Open Government Partnership,” to confer the third highest award on President Aquino’s new version of the pork-barrel scheme, renamed “Grassroots Participatory Budgeting.”

One can credit the two for their brazenness: Convincing an international body to grant an award for “citizen-empowerment” to an old scheme with a new name, through which local politicians obtain funding for their district’s projects that, existent or non-existent, serve as conduits for kickbacks.

Soliman, as usual, became misty-eyed when she received the award in New York, and we, as a nation, stepped into a position vulnerable to receiving a black eye when that body realizes soon this Philippine government official pulled the wool over its eyes.

The gist of the award was that the Philippines’ Grassroots Participatory Budgeting system had “local government and civil society jointly allocating budgets for development projects.” That’s utter hogwash: Such joint allocation has and will occur in only a very small number of towns; the system is merely a necessary camouflage for the old pork barrel after the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

The awards, the first undertaken by the new organization “Open Government Partnership,” were given to nine countries, with the Philippines being the only developing country to receive the honor. The other awardees were highly developed nations such as Denmark, Netherlands, Italy, and the US, known for their transparent and efficient states. (The OPG was organized in 2011 by eight nations, among which the Philippines and Indonesia were the only developing countries, “to promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to make government more open, effective, and accountable.”) That Soliman and Abad were lying about the Grassroots Participatory Budgeting is quite obvious in the description of the program which they submitted:

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Soliman receiving the award last month in New York with CODE-NGO Chair Patricia Sarenas.

 

• “The program goes beyond mere consultation as decisions are made through a body composed of 50 percent government and 50 percent CSO (civil-society organization) representatives. CSO representatives are elected through a city/municipal level assembly. National government does not accept proposals that are not signed by CSO representatives.”

• “Coverage was rapidly expanded from 30 percent of local governments in the first year to all local governments (numbering 1,634) by the third year. “

What the duo falsely portrayed is that the Philippines has become a civil-society paradise, with strong civil-society organizations in all of its 1,634 cities and municipalities, and having a say over how central government funds are used.

That’s a downright lie.

What assemblies?
It is certainly strange that there has been no news report that “city/municipal-level assemblies” were called in all of the country’s cities and towns, in which CSO representatives were elected. The projects they were referring to, as I will explain below, are actually pork-barrel projects, which do not require the signatures of any CSO representative to be proposed and implemented.

Soliman is even confused on how long the program has been ongoing. Its first year was in 2013. Its third year, therefore, would be next year, 2015. How can they claim its coverage is “expanded” to all 1,634 cities and municipalities next year?

They also claimed: “Legislation institutionalizing the program is already making progress in Congress.” There is no such bill on that program filed in Congress.

Soliman and Abad said in their application for the award:

“All local governments are now engaging civil society and community organizations. More importantly, engagement is not merely through consultation, but rather through joint decision-making. The right mix of incentives is used to encourage local governments and civil society to work with each other. The process has resulted in 6,000 projects in 2013 (amounting to over US$200 million) and 19,000 projects in 2014 (amounting to over US$500 million) that are now being implemented across the country.” (Emphasis added)

All 1, 634 municipalities and towns have organized such assemblies and elections for CSO representatives? Have you, dear reader, heard of such assembly in your town or city where CSOs told the local government how government funds would be used?

There are, of course, areas where CSOs have been active for decades, and where such assemblies were undertaken. But I’d bet this was done in less than two dozen municipalities.

Soliman’s and Abad’s grassroots participatory fiction is exposed with the figures they themselves provided: the 6,000 projects in 2013 costing over $200 million (P8.4 billion) and 19,000 in 2014 costing $500 million (P21 billion).

The 2013 figure was the amount released as the Priority Development Assistance Program for the House of Representatives, the old name for pork barrel. It was reduced from the P16 billion levels in the past two years because the Supreme Court issued a restraining order against it. The projects are the usual ones funded out of pork-barrel money since 1987, such as “various road projects,” “multipurpose barangay buildings,” and the ubiquitous “livelihood projects.”

Pork renamed
The 2014 figure is when the pork barrel fund had been renamed Grassroots Participatory Budgeting in order to go around the Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional. (It was renamed such from the initial Bottom-up Budgeting, as Abad’s staff kept on miscalling it as “bottoms-up” and smirking.)

For their feat, Soliman and Abad should be given an award as the best of Filipino conmen. They fooled an international body into giving an award for citizen-participation and government transparency to Aquino’s new version of pork barrel, an old anti-poor mechanism for patronage and graft.

It was Soliman who received the award in the ceremonies in New York since, after all, the idea for the new-style pork, came from her.

The DSWD early in 2012 started a project with an P8 million grant from the Australian government to undertake research on a nationwide basis on the feasibility of using a budgeting system tried in small advanced countries called “bottom-up budgeting (BUB).”

In such a system, imported from the business sector, citizens through town-hall meetings, or through their organzations, propose to government the projects their locality requires. While effective in very small states, such a process, though, is extremely naïve in poor countries, where bosses dominate local governments. In business and in the few countries (like Australia) where it has been used, BUB has all been abandoned as an impractical, even laboriously ineffective system.

Soliman and her NGO crowd got into the project with enthusiasm, and “bottom-up budgeting” became that crowd’s flavor of the month. That’s really not surprising as this has been Soliman’s line of work in the past: most of the P8 million budget under the Australian-funded program involved consultants’ and participants’ per diems.

Despite the hype civil-society types gave it, Soliman and Abad were pragmatic enough to have the BUB program tried out only on a very limited scale.

It was to be implemented only in municipalities with at least a 20 percent poverty incidence. In practical terms, it could be undertaken only in municipalities with a mature civil-society presence, or else it would be mobs in assemblies that would determine what projects government should fund.

When the Supreme Court declared the pork-barrel scheme unconstitutional, it wasn’t important for Aquino and Abad whether that budgeting system works or not.

It was seen as a perfect way to go around the Supreme Court ruling and to cloak the pork-barrel system. After all, Aquino couldn’t junk his bribe-system, or Congress would turn against him overnight. An added edge of the BUB would be that CSO people would think that the assemblies they participated in are being implemented nationwide, and therefore, would champion it.

Abad in a press statement in mid-2013 about the “grassroots budgeting system” said that it would be implemented on an experimental basis in, at most, 300 municipalities. When they submitted its application for the Open Government award in May 2014, they claimed it was being implemented in all 1,634 cities and municipalities.

What liars.