Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 22, 2008

First Posted 02:45:00 11/22/2008


Philippine Daily Inquirer

On Nov. 18, the National Food Authority (NFA) published an innocuous-looking notice in the CHEATING THE POORpapers: “In reference to our previous announcement we would like to remind the public that effective December 1, 2008, the sale of highly subsidized NFA rice at P18.25 per kilogram will be limited to those holders of Family Access Card (FAC) in NCR and Rice Allocation Ledger (RAL) at the provincial level as validated by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.”

Behind that notice is a story of incompetence, inefficiency and buck-passing, and of officialdom being blind to what the public could clearly see all along: their leaders and fellow citizens subverting the system for personal advantage.

When the government admitted that there was a rice crisis, it also announced that it would pour billions of pesos into providing subsidized rice for the poor and that it would institute rationing to ensure that everyone would get at least something. What followed was a stampede, as queues formed and government’s perennially creaky infrastructure groaned under the weight of public panic and official promises.

Observers began to notice that the queues forming had a curious human composition. People who weren’t residents of the area would appear in them. There seemed to be roving bands of entrepreneurial folk—whole families at a time—queuing up to then resell their subsidized rice to middle-class types who wanted to save on rice for their household help or company employees. We won’t even go into the whispered allegations of importers profiting from the emergency purchases decreed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, or the politicians who found sorting out the confusing queuing going on to be a good way to allocate patronage.

The emergency purchase and distribution of rice was funded by the expanded value-added tax. But as the crisis atmosphere concerning rice, then oil, has dissipated, to be replaced by growing concern over the global financial crisis, it seems that the government threw good money after bad, with nothing to show for it as far as rice is concerned.

Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral, who has had her fair share of having otherwise rational pro-poor programs altered beyond recognition by the President’s obsession with political patronage above all else, admitted recently that what the World Bank said in a report was true: Only a third of the rice bought in great quantities and at great cost, for resale at subsidized prices for the poor (families with five members, and a monthly income of P5,000), found its way into the hands of the poor. As much as 41 percent of the subsidized rice, on the other hand, found its way into non-poor households, which, as we’ve pointed out, was widely noticed and commented on during the rice crisis. The two wealthiest sectors of society, according to the same World Bank study, consumed 16 percent of the NFA’s subsidized rice—again something conspicuous during the rice crisis, when chauffeurs waited for the entrepreneurial beneficiaries to sell their rations to the drivers’ bosses.

Everyone, we believe, will welcome both Cabral’s admission that something is wrong (studies to look at the organizational flaws, bureaucratic inefficiency and mismanagement of our government agencies represent a worthy and useful thing to do, and not just “destabilization”) and the NFA’s efforts to fix matters by refocusing on validating the identities of those who want subsidized rice. But this is a government that has periodically engaged in trying to map the population without, it seems, ever accomplishing the task in a manner that actually works.

The flaws in the system point to two real problems: the way the national government finds even well-intentioned programs swamped by the sheer logistics required by such programs, and the way local governments, which are supposed to be an increasingly independent partner and not just a servant of the national government, end up thinking only of patronage and short-term political gain, and not the common good. The end result is billions wasted, public confidence further reduced, and the poorest of the poor getting the short end of the stick.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved.



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