On Aug. 26, National Heroes Day, what is being dubbed as a “million-people march” against the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) will be held at Luneta Park. With this upcoming movement against, among other examples, a glaring symbol of corruption in our society, Luneta may once again bear witness to another transformative milestone in our history: the start of an era of integrity.
A similarly intense public stand against corruption occurred in 2010, when the Filipino people elected Benigno S. Aquino III to steer the Philippines toward greater transparency and accountability. In the first half of President Aquino’s term, the country indeed benefited from his administration’s earnest drive for good governance. This is illustrated in our improving national competitiveness, the increased investor confidence, and the renewed vigilance of the people to ensure that these gains will be safeguarded, sustained and made inclusive.
It is in this context that on Aug. 18, the Makati Business Club, along with the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development, CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines)-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice, and Peace, Citizens’ Congress for Good Governance, and the Transparency and Accountability Network, issued a statement calling for greater prudence in the management of public funds. In the statement, we condemned, in the strongest possible terms, the systemic and repeated diversion of the people’s money for personal purposes, particularly the P10-billion PDAF scam allegedly operated by Janet Lim-Napoles, which implicated a number of our senators and congressmen.
At first glance, the PDAF is a tool that can directly address local needs. It can serve as a good complement to national development efforts, which cannot fully provide for the economic and social requirements of every locality, most especially those in far-flung provinces.
However, as with all tools, its role as a beneficial or harmful means to an end rests with how it is used. Despite its good intentions, the PDAF has also allowed corruption to infect our institutions and spread across its various levels. A crucial element to this problem is the wide discretion given to our elected officials regarding the disbursement of the PDAF. As a consequence, running for public office has become a very alluring prospect for persons of questionable motives, thereby barring our political system from maturity.
Thus, I commend the Aquino administration for adopting a strong stance regarding the PDAF, which is consistent with its mandate to purge corruption in government. The reforms announced by the President yesterday (Friday) will not only ensure the judicious use of the people’s money, but will also greatly contribute to the transformation of our politics for the better.
As a first step, I support the joint investigation of the Ombudsman, the Department of Justice, and the Commission on Audit. More importantly, I support the President’s position to prosecute all persons found to have been involved in this scandal and to hold them accountable to the full extent of the law. This should include individuals, whether private citizens or public officials, regardless of political affiliation.
It is also my firm belief that localized development can still be achieved even without the PDAF. This goal can be realized through the regular budgetary process, where Congress participates in its primary capacity as a lawmaking, representative body. The challenge for local organizations is to get involved and build their capacity as principal stakeholders in bottom-up budgeting, observing bidding procedures, and monitoring the implementation of projects. Through transparent deliberations on the General Appropriations Act, and subject to limitations on which proposals may be given support, elected representatives will only identify projects that will be given funding. Indeed, the representatives no longer have discretion as to actual implementation, including, among other things, the selection of contractors that will deliver on the commitments.
Adhering to the regular budgetary process highlights the principle of collaboration between elected officials and private citizens. The proper functioning of this partnership is very much encouraged in a democracy and is, in fact, at the center of the Aquino administration’s thrust for people empowerment and good governance.
As a final point, the PDAF scandal illustrates the vulnerability of public funds in general to misuse. Thus, I would like to strongly reiterate our call for the swift passage of the Freedom of Information bill. While there are ongoing efforts at further protecting public funds, this landmark legislation will ensure that the current and succeeding administrations will be bound by the highest levels of transparency and integrity required of public servants.
Indeed, the value of this piece of legislation can be seen in the comprehensive coverage of the press, which is instrumental in facilitating public discussion and involvement in the issue. It demonstrates the power of information to deter potential abuses.
With the encouraging developments leading to Monday’s protest, I am one with the Filipino people in expecting a speedy resolution to the controversy. Corruption has been pervasive in our institutions for decades, and it is my hope that with this issue prominently on top of the nation’s consciousness, a culture of integrity and transparency will be built and eventually become the standard.
Ramon R. del Rosario Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) chairs the Makati Business Club.