Defining terminologies in ‘Priority Development Assistance Fund’

From the Philippine Star

Actress and Cavite 2nd district Rep. Lani Mercado Revilla has said she is not in favor of scrapping congressional pork, and her words were met with angry comments online.

Basta ‘wag lang manghihingi sa amin ang mga tao!” Mercado amusingly told in an interview last week, referring to lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund, billions of which were allegedly spent on ghost projects and non-existent organizations.

Basta ako, meron akong ulat sa bayan. Isinusulat ko dun yung mga ipinapagawa ko. Siyempre, hindi ko na ina-accounting kung magkano ang ibinigay ko sa patay. Nilalagay ko lang, financial assistance, then yung amount,” she said.

Ms. Mercado’s statements exactly mirror the thinking of her peers, at least those who I’ve met over some years through work.  I lost count of the times they told us of impoverished locals making the long line to their offices everyday to make pleas for personal assistance, meaning, money to buy food, basic stuff, funeral expenses.  If you’re new in the field and a neophyte in development especially field operations, you’d think these public officials are blessed with magic pockets because nothing’s said about where the money they’re doling out came from.  At these meetings, I have a tiny smile plastered on my face that I hoped said everything I wasn’t saying.  Don’t venture into political debates because we’re apolitical, my organization’s code of conduct exhorts.  Fine.  But what I really thought was, it’s a gamblers world.  I’ve been in the field long enough to learn that locals, the poor, can also do power plays.  They know how to exploit their leaders, to extract from them what they want.  And the politicians take the bait, willingly.  They each have a motive and they play this up to their advantage.  These exchanges blur the traditional meaning of victim.  Psychology has a name for it.  The psychiatrist Eric Berne introduced the term ‘transactional analysis’ in his book Games People Play.  But economists would say, they’re merely being rational.  You go back to your world, to HQ, to readings on governance and poverty white papers, to meetings of governance and poverty experts, and nothing of what’s written or said or debated come near to capturing the realities in the field.  (I liked to jar the mental atmosphere in these meetings some times and tell them the reality as it is and they’d looked at me shocked like I’m a poor dirty girl intruding into a WEF session.  Well, that’s the objective.  At least we’re all looking at the same picture.  Can we now proceed with the discussion?)

Collectively, in the organization, we’ve also lost count of the number of times we’ve been persistently asked for all manners of support that the organization doesn’t support (despite their knowledge of this) like stand-alone equipments, financial assistance, dole outs.  One particular agency was quite the sly fox.  At celebratory gatherings such as inauguration of buildings we’ve funded partly or in whole they try to insert somewhere in their speeches requests for equipments and such in attempts to corner us into agreeing.  But we recognize their game.  My colleagues are experts in diplomatically dodging these unsolicited approaches.  I’m more straightforward.  I’ve seen the faces of these people fall to the ground at my relative bluntness, its impact somehow cushioned by my naturally soft voice.  But it has its positive effect — word gets around and they know they can’t extract a yes from me so they stop doing it, with me at least.   Regardless, we always make it a point to emphasize in meetings with locals and public officials there that the organization has moved on from dole out to strategic development, having learned its lessons from earlier development models.  We had to say this over and over, sounding like sirang plaka to our own ears, because we discovered that memories are short.

The point of this sharing is, if you haven’t defined what to spend your money on it will go to buying anything.

On the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) site, Priority Development Assistance Fund is defined as

a lump sum appropriation in the annual General Appropriations Act to fund the priority development programs and projects of the government

It’s clear enough, at least to people in development, that the fund is for priority development programs and projects.  And development programs and projects are not the same thing as financial assistance to individual citizen’s funeral expenses.  The development community has arrived at the point where it has learned important lessons from the dole out model.  The conclusion is that the model only fosters dependency from the communities.  Empowerment, equality, and justice do not sit well with that model.  Local public officials need to be abreast with this fact.  (Perhaps, make it all public officials.  Because I’m reminded of the headlines some time ago in the Philippine Inquirer of Senator Grace Poe’s priority bills:  feeding.  My god.)

Moreover, you can’t upgrade the quality of life in the whole of your locality by a tingi-tingi approach.  The more strategic, cascading, and longer lasting response is, jobs, infrastructures and services, safety and security, resilience building that respond to local contexts.  These should be the priority development programs and projects.  In fact, the current line up of Mayors and local officials don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They only need to read up on their localities’ physical and development plans as well as the NUDHF and fund what’s stated in these plans.

But first they need to understand what development is (see Theories of Development:  Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives, for example).

If Ms. Mercado used the PDAF to attend a crash course on development I’m OK with that.  If I were a Caviteno I’d be assured that she is a better equipped urban manager.  Yes she may be well meaning in her intentions as a local official but there’s a monumental difference in competencies between a medical doctor and a structural engineer.  This does not only concern Ms. Mercado but true for most local officials especially at the barangay and city or municipality levels.