Provinces are key
A former agriculture secretary once vowed to recentralize our agricultural extension system, arguing that, “I can’t be effective if I don’t control my own soldiers.” He was unhappy that the Local Government Code of 1991 had devolved agricultural extension to the local governments (along with social welfare and health services). It seems true indeed that most local governments failed to do agricultural extension right, if at all. Many mayors never gave due attention to the sector; I even heard of a mayor who only used his municipal agricultural officer (MAO) as his driver.
But that agriculture secretary missed the point. The problem was not devolution, but how it was done. To retake control over “his soldiers” on the ground would have meant a return to a top-down system that had spelled failure over decades, and contributed to relative stagnation in our farm sector leading up to 1991. That was when lawmakers saw wisdom in the governance principle of subsidiarity, a prominent element in the “reinventing government” discourse at the time. Subsidiarity, as described by author Reid Buckley, implies that “no higher-level public agency should attempt to do what a lower-level agency can do better.” The popular maxim was “let central government do the steering, while local governments do the rowing.” It is based on the premise that the unit of governance closest to a problem is best placed to address it.
My favorite story showing the folly of top-down agricultural governance came out of a visit I once made to a poor barangay in the highlands of Mindanao, where I noted almost nothing but tall cogon grass around. I asked the barangay captain, a farmer, what he would ask of government if granted one wish. His answer: carabaos. Did they get anything from the government? He said yes, fertilizers and hybrid seeds. “Without carabaos to till our land, we have no use for it. We take it anyway and sell it.” The MAO insisted that she had constantly told highers-up of her farmers’ prior needs, but told me exasperatedly: “All these programs come to us from Manila, and they’ve already decided that it’s fertilizers and hybrid seeds that they want to give.”
Enter Pafes, or the Province-led Agricultural and Fisheries Extension System, now a major thrust of Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar. As espoused to him by the Los Baños-based Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, the idea is for the provincial government, through its agricultural office, to take responsibility for technical coordination of its MAOs. The PAO (Provincial Agriculture Office), in turn, is to receive technical and material support from DA. In contrast, the existing system of devolution leaves MAOs to their own devices, often ill-equipped on how to go about their work. While the DA cannot possibly guide over 1,600 municipalities and cities all over the country, it can certainly do it for 81 provinces.
But Pafes requires the DA officialdom and bureaucracy to shed an age-old top-down mentality, and cease believing they’re endowed with superpowers to control agricultural outcomes nationwide. There are cynics who point out that it’s in top-down programs and projects where the bounty has always been—and persistently top-down agricultural governance, even under mandated devolution, may have been motivated less by an inflated view of their own capabilities, and more by a quest for inflated bank accounts. Meanwhile, well-meaning experts from local state universities and colleges, NGOs, and even private agribusiness entities are well-equipped and ready to help their host provinces do agriculture right, and make their farmers truly productive, profitable, and prosperous. Agriculture, after all, is too important to be left to the DA alone.
Update on Lolo Ikong: Dozens of golden-hearted readers offered help to my article’s subject last week, and raised enough funds to redeem the mortgage on their homelot, with money left to perhaps help the family start a livelihood that would keep Lolo Ikong off the streets. Whether the family could keep him at home is the next question. After all, peddling ice candy could well be his preferred way of staying connected, and staying fit!