PDAF, Holdaf, Pork Barrel and its many Names: A View from the Bottom

(Disclaimer: The views stated herein are mainly that of the writer.)

In the last few days, the country had been united in taunting one single issue related to governance – the misuse of the Priority Assistance and Development Fund (PDAF), aka the pork barrel”. This is a special fund allocated to members of the two law-making houses in the land – the Senate and the Congress to each of its elected legislators. I will react to the issue both as a student of Public Management and Public Policy as well as from the point of view of a working mother and ordinary citizen of this country. What differentiates the way a private person spends the family budget earned through honest to goodness labor, from that of say, one elected official on public funds entrusted to him by law on the principle of promoting the public good and welfare of his constituency? One is the element of discretion. As a private entity, I have a right and prerogative to spend my own earnings based on my own needs & priorities and that of my household. As a public servant, one cannot use public funds for personal reasons. I am accountable to my household; the politician, to the public. Another is the element of trust. I am bound to my family as they are my “trust” and responsibility in my lifetime. The politician, on the other hand, came to power because people gave their trust that he shall be their voice and champion on the formal arena of policy-making,

The PDAF as Tax-payers Money

The last time I paid my annual tax was when I worked with a government foreign-assisted project from 1999 to sometime in 2004. As a private service provider (Project Staff), my contract fee was deducted 10% on a monthly disbursement. Prior to this job (and even afterwards), I had been for the most part working in the non-profit and voluntary sector. Yet, as a consumer, I know that I had been paying my dues to the government coffers for every item that I may have purchased – whether a product or a service availed due to the Value Added Tax (VAT) and its expanded version (E-VAT) impositions. When I started to work overseas, I opted to register with the POEA and OWWA, and regularly paid my dues. Hence, technically, I was an OFW from 2006 to March of this year. Every month, I sent back as much as 50 – 70% of my salary to my family as remittance. This is also subjected to a kind of tax whether from the bank or from the money remittance service system. Therefore, I am a contributor to the country’s economy.

I agree with one commentator in the newspapers, that the issue of public question on the misuse of PDAF should be not seen only from the private citizen “disenfranchisement” from public funds that would have been translated into concrete public goods and service. While the issue can be felt at the personal level, it has a far more collective implication – one that questions the whole system of governance in the country. And this touches all facets of our lives.

The State of Social Services in the Country

Most of the time, I patronize the public health system, not only because my parents worked in a state hospital in my province, but because they are cheaper and I personally know the health professionals and workers who attend to my needs and that of my kids. I delivered all my babies in the public maternity ward, and availed of the Under-5 services, pre-natal and post-natal cares available. Despite the lack in many aspects (and that one has to buy the medicines and some supplies not found in the Pharmacy), I never complained out of respect for my parents’ colleagues and employer (and I know them, too, from childhood). Generally, you have to dismiss all that is missing to the fact that the institution is but one of the many in the whole public health system in the country. Yet, I was a lucky one. There were far more other patients (and indigents as they are called) who were in far more uncomfortable condition, grateful for any material and professional care that they can avail from the only public hospital in the area. As for me, I had the option of going to a private clinic or doctor, which most of the time I do not because, here is somewhere nearer to my house with people I know, my parents know, whom we trust could give us more personalized service. Health service is most of the time about human touch, the more sincere, the better; the more you know who treats you, the more you trust you are in safe hands. When I was a child, I remember seeing a woman in labor being carried on a “duyan” (native cradle). They came from one of the distant villages where no health centers or health workers can be found. That was in the late 70’s. Lately, we do not see such scenes anymore. Yet, you can still hear the sad state of affairs in the health service sector in the country, or in this hospital for that matter.

For more complicated cases and ailments requiring state of the art service, people from the province have to go the major cities. Despite two private hospitals that were added, operated by religious congregations, many of the cases are still referred to other larger hospitals within the country.

For most indigent patients, they have to seek help from local politicians including the Congressman, either for referrals, or direct financial aid. On the one hand, it fills the gap of social service supposedly provided by the State. But policies such as privatization and devolution (and its drawbacks) are factors that ought to be considered here as well. While the politician can justify the need for PDAF, and that it has been used in certain cases to serve people’s needs, other issues are glossed over. Personally, I would feel dis-empowered to seek assistance from a politician for my medical care, because in the current state of things, I become beholden forever to elect this guy out of “utang na loob” (gratitude). Worst, I will be sharing his political color, (re: party affiliation), from the eyes of the entire community. If this is the case, in any event one takes a different stand on any issue from that of the politician or his party, one will be considered a “divergent.” I can surely say, that the presence of such schemes as PDAF (or its derogatory name, “pork barrel”, originally a term used to mean “food for the slaves”), reflects the state of our political immaturity as a democracy. Why would policy-makers behave on the basis of this thing dangled before them? And why would a citizen become a “slave” to the politician because he happened to avail an iota of such largess? Are we not better than this social arrangement?

Participation and Empowerment of Peoples

While the response of the present administration – Investigate, Prosecute and Recover is timely and appropriate to the PDAF scam (or any political scam for that matter), time has also come for governance in this country to really take a straight course. Last Monday, the people have spoken their anger in many ways and in various spaces of discourse including the cyber space. While some experts say that the means was a “post-modern” one, wherein no leader or icon (or group) had been catalyzing the mobilization, the fact is that the issue united the citizens rather than polarized society and that the anger was directed to the system and what ails it, makes it a good starting ground for change to continue.

Post- August 26 Scenario and a Proposed Way Forward

In the next days or more, public discussion will surely continue (including expressions of disgust), both on the street and in social media. The Media will surely continue providing airtime (and print spaces) on the issue, whether analyses and commentaries of experts, or simply opinions from the ordinary citizens. Social mobilizations may sustain; academic discourses conducted; sermons on the pulpit delivered and other forms of public discourses ought to be sustained, lest the issue die a natural death.

What concerns me more is down at the grassroots level, where civil societies are not organized, where loyalties to political patronage are stronger. Reactions from the ordinary citizens had been one of disgust. Yet, what can they do about it. People are concerned with earning their living. Unlike the businessman or professional who felt cheated by the system, disgust can be expressed on social media and other forum. The poor who have no access to modern devices of social communication will rely on the neighborhood and local leaders (and public opinion-makers) to consolidate their stand on the issue. Let alone, what actions can be expected from them? Let us not forget, the Local Government Units (LGUs) are powerful entities down here. And as part of the entire system, they are also part of the problem (as well as the solution if asserted).

As can be expected, there will be roadblocks on this struggle. The strongest reactions will come from the guilty parties. Already it has become a struggle of who is the cleanest has the right to speak. And in the murky waters of Philippine politics, naming and shaming is a weapon of almost everyone, whether on correct grounds and motives, or the opposite.

Hence, I still reiterate my previous sentiment on how change can better be addressed from the grassroots, that is, through education. It may take a long time to change people’s attitudes and political behavior. It will probably take a much longer time to change the kind of leaders (and political parties) that our communities will rally around with. Much less, it may take awhile for something to happen from the bottom.

Already, there are talks of bottom-up-budgeting (BUB) processes to be replicated in this country, a practice of people’s participation in local governance which worked in some Latin American countries. Before government seriously considers adopting the practice, I hope that it will ensure some important elements first: ensure that authentic champions of good governance from below are present, and that communities are ready and willing to support the call for change. Otherwise, you will only get sneers, or worst, stones will be thrown at you.

Over the years, people have grown cynical to any anti-graft and corruption campaigns in the country. The leaps and breakthroughs are most welcome.  However, these may not be felt from the grassroots, and such gains are unrecognized.  The good thing is they are happening. The question is will these be sustained?



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