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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

GMA and Dinky

Congress adjourned for the All Saints Day break, but House members are still talking about how Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo broke her four-month silence last Tuesday night, Oct. 12. At 9 pm., as the marathon budget hearings rolled on, GMA appeared and proceeded to question the P21billion conditional cash transfer (CCT) program sought by Social Welfare & Development Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman. The CCT in the 2011 budget is more than double the P10 billion CCT last year, and GMA apparently was shocked to learn this. She stormed into the session hall to grill the DSWD budget sponsor, Guimaras Rep. J. C. Nava, who was being coached by Soliman. 

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Rep. Nava justified the over 100 percent increase in the CCT budget by saying that it would benefit some 2.3 million families in 2011--or 1.3 million more than the beneficiaries in GMA’s last year in office. The CCT is a concept GMA picked up from Brazil's President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva's Bolsa Familia and setting it up here two years ago, she knows it like the palm of her hand; moreover, the DSWD is one office she admits to really love, having headed it during President Estrada’s term. When she assumed the presidency, Soliman served as her first DSWD Secretary.
Last Tuesday House gallery spectators were amused that the shoe was in the other foot: GMA was tormenting her former subordinate. Some House members began singing "If we hold on together" in the plenary hall, as though to remind Dinky and her ilk about how they serendaded GMA just days before they turned traitor to her on July 8, 2005.
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GMA began asking how the DSWD arrived at the additional 1.2 million beneficiaries in so short a time, when during her term it took that office three years to cover a million households, even with the help of the education and health departments. Noting the P1.6 billion from the P21 billion budget would go for training of additional personnel to handle the CCT, she wanted to know how they were picked and trained, and where they would be deployed. She argued that ince the CCT was meant as an anti-poverty measure for the poorest of the poor as well as an incentive for parents to make their children attend school, and for pregnant mothers to receive pre-natal care, it would be far more sensible if  the additional P1.3 million CCT funds for 2011 would be used to first build more classrooms and birthing facilities for mothers. GMA's eyes also popped at learning that P320 million of the CCT budget will be allocated for the printing of informational materials on the CCT. 

 DSWD officials could offer no clear answers to GMA's various questions, so much so that at some point a recess had to be called to give the DSWD time to gather its data---and its wits. The House majority wanted to take up another budget item while waiting, but the opposition refused to allow it under the rules. In the end it was clear that Soliman and Co. had the round figures but not the nitty gritty---or as they say, “details to follow.”

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Last Tuesday gallery folks saw the famous flash of temper of GMA from time to time as the DSWD people failed to produce satisfactory answers about the gargantuan budget they were asking for. One thing about GMA: she may have been perhaps the most unpopular president next to Marcos (her harshest critics say she is THE most unpopular), but she certainly was a hands-on Chief Executive and easily the most computer-savvy. She had data at her fingertips so that as President she would cause officials to tremble when she started grilling them during provincial sorties. Moreover, she knew the state of each and every project and program in the country.  Last Tuesday night it was clear that the DSWD people didn't do their homework.

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But despite GMA’s incisive questionings and the anti-budget manifesto signed by about 50 representatives, including militants who had once bitterly fought her, the House majority rammed the 2011 budget through. The best that Minority Leader Edcel Lagman could do was to get a commitment from the small committee that would be formed when the House resumes session on Nov. 8, to look into budget amendment proposals. Lagman wants an oversight committee to look into how the P21 billion CCT would be used. The plenary hasn't heard the last from GMA on this subject.

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Last March a bunch of emails was  exchanged among several leaders of civil society, among them Ging Deles, Mely Nicolas, Remy Rikken and Sally Bulatao. The emails saw them congratulating one another and they gloated about they were able to derail the grant of hundreds of millions of US dollars from the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to RP.

Frankly I think their claim of derailing the MMC grant to RP was again another manifestation of their exaggerated sense of self-importance, which in the P-Noy administration seems to exceed the bounds of credibility. But even assuming it’s true that some of them were able to help stop the huge funds from getting to the Filipino people by lobbying in Washington, it would show how they think only of their own vainglory and not how the US funds could have helped the poorest Filipinos and the development of the country. It's the Hyatt 10's brand of arrogance that turns even Congress off, as in the case of  Lanao del Sur Rep. Aliah Dimaporo whom Peace Adviser Ging Deles had offended with her condescending"Just read my book" remark. 

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The MCC was founded through the bipartisan effort of the US Congress in January 2004, at the start of the second of the two George W. Bush terms, as the US government's principal vehicle to make available some $7.4 Billion to developing countries. The MCC, which is chaired by the US Secretary of State, provides anti-poverty assistance and sustainable development to various countries around the globe, though its heaviest concentration of aid understandably is in Africa. The MCC maintains two kinds of aid programs. One is the “Threshold” program, which represents smaller grants to countries that come close to passing the three criteria: good governance, economic freedom and investments in their citizens. The second is the “Compact” program which involves bigger fund assistance, but also stiffer criteria to meet.

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In November 2006 the Philippines was declared eligible for the MCC Threshold program amounting to $21 million, which ended last year. Since then, the Arroyo government had sought to apply for a Compact grant of $433.4 million for 2010-2014, but the MCC Board decided last March to defer its decision on this grant. The reason was that MCC preferred to wait and see if the administration succeeding Arroyo would remain committed to the development principles that the US foreign aid agency espouses.

This deferment was what triggered that flurry of congratulatory emails among the Hyatt 10 leaders and their allies; in the media they argued that it was the corruption in the GMA administration that caused the MCC to ignore its petition for the Compact grant. But to my mind, the grant deferment was just natural, since RP last March was in the middle of a frenetic campaign for the May 10 national elections, and everything, including business investments, was on a wait-and-see mode. The MCC was said to be particularly concerned that the presidential winner would not discontinue or terminate the Contract application simply because the Arroyo administration had worked for it.

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Last month, the MCC held a signing ceremony in New York City, with President Aquino as witness, for a  Compact grant for RP of $434 million. This will go to three big projects: the strengthening of revenue reform, the Kalahi-CIDSS project for rural poverty alleviation, and two secondary national road development projects in Samar and Eastern Samar. I’m happy for our country about this development, but I’d like to put things in the proper perspective by quoting a passage from the March 27 email of civil society leader Mario Taguiwalo.

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In answer to the congratulatory emails his fellow civil society leaders were furiously sending to one another over the deferment of RP’s selection for the MCC Compact program, Taguiwalo confessed he felt ”sad that we regard as good news the report that needed assistance is being withheld from our country.” Acknowledging that a favorable MCC decision would be seen as “an affirmation of the poor corruption record of the (Arroyo) administration,” Taguiwalo stressed that on the other hand, "we in civil society have not yet come forward with a consensus program to improve the institutional anti-corruption ratings of our country… we have not translated public abhorrence to corruption into public support for specific actions. I suggest that we come up with 10 things that our country must do to improve its international ratings on corruption and get the support of as wide a coalition as possible.”

Amen to that. Improving on corruption should begin with things like spelling out the nitty-gritty behind the huge sums our public officials ask for, such as the P21 billion CCT of the DSWD. Sen. Edgardo Angara has also asked the Truth Commission headed by former CJ Hilario Davide to also look into the fat commissions that Dinky and Co. reportedly enjoyed from the controversial PEACE Bonds, an issue the Hyatt 10 group has simply ignored.  But to be nebulous about these issues is to invite corruption all over again.  If these were to be ignored, what would happen to P-Noy's promised reforms?


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