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No Free Lunch

NFA, CSW and UST

Did he or didn’t he?

Last week saw conflicting reports on President Duterte’s supposed decision to abolish the interagency National Food Authority (NFA) Council. Are we to believe Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, who reportedly announced that the President had abolished the Council and would transfer the NFA back to the Department of Agriculture? Or presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who was subsequently quoted disputing this, saying that the NFA will actually be transferred to the Office of the President with its council? Whatever the real score is, the incident once again highlights a glaring weakness of this administration: the lack of one voice. Is the President’s designated spokesperson the more credible source on the matter of presidential decisions, or the directly concerned member of his Cabinet? Whoever it is, it’s important that the government speak as one.

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The disputed report itself is worrisome, because it implies either ignorance or deliberate defiance of the law on the part of the President, if he indeed decided such, or if not, the senior official who claimed so, in this case Secretary Piñol. The NFA Council is, after all, the NFA’s governing body, as mandated by law. Having such a governing body to provide oversight and policy guidance is not only customary, but also essential, for the proper functioning of any public or private entity whose functions are imbued with the public interest. That’s the reason corporations have boards of directors, foundations have boards of trustees, government agencies have governing bodies or councils, local governments have what are called “sanggunian” (councils), and so on. This is particularly critical in the government, where 1) the involvement of various relevant departments/agencies needs to be provided for to ensure coherence of objectives and achieved outcomes, and 2) decisions and actions made by an agency can have profound impacts on the lives of the citizenry—in our case 103 million Filipinos.

I’ve long believed that rice policy is too important to be left to the discretion and judgment of the Department of Agriculture alone. Economists have long understood how our traditional policy of supposedly “protecting” rice farmers by restricting rice importation to a state monopoly via the NFA has actually hurt us all. It’s a “shotgun policy” that inflicts wide collateral damage on the rest of our economy and the wide masses of Filipinos. Worse, corrupt officials saw fabulous moneymaking opportunities in the state-controlled rice trade. The protected market fostered decades of complacency and ineffective support for the industry, perpetuating inefficiency and higher costs, as there was little impetus to reduce production costs under a highly shielded market. The policy thought to “protect” our rice farmers from lower-cost imported rice also pushed up the price that all Filipinos must pay for our primary food staple. Ironically, the price penalty falls on rice farmers and their families as well, as poverty researches consistently show them to be rice buyers, too. With this staple being our primary wage good, wage rates have had to be higher to support workers’ subsistence, thereby undermining the economy’s competitiveness in manufacturing and services as well. Worst of all, it has led to much higher incidence of child stunting from severe malnutrition, reducing the lifelong brain and physical development and permanently damaging the futures of one in every three young Filipino children of today.

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In rice policy and in all matters of governance, interagency coordination has always been of paramount importance. During his time, President Fidel V. Ramos called it “CSW,” or completed staff work. It ensured that the government worked as a team, rather than let the left hand go one direction while the right hand goes the other way—or have one Cabinet official say one thing while another belies it. For the government and the nation to advance, Ramos preached “UST” (unity, solidarity and teamwork) in all that we do. That’s what the NFA Council is there for.

If the report is true that the President himself told the NFA administrator to ignore his own governing body and defy it, alas, we are all in deep dung.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Harry Roque, Manny Piñol, National Food Authority, NFA Council, NFA rice supply, No Free Lunch, Rodrigo Duterte
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