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No Free Lunch

Ghost-busting at the ARMM

/ 07:53 PM January 23, 2012

“Things are finally looking up for Muslim Mindanao,” I wrote on my Facebook wall the other day. I had just spent Friday evening and Saturday with the newly appointed officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), led by caretaker Gov. Mujiv Hataman and his brand-new Cabinet. The Cotabato-based Institute of Autonomy and Governance (IAG) had organized a three-day team-building workshop for the incoming ARMM officials in Davao City, in an effort to get the new regional government off on the right footing. In consultation with the governor, IAG also formed a small group of not-so-old “senior” advisers, all of us volunteers who will serve pro bono. IAG head Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado had planned for us to meet with Hataman only once every two months; instead, the governor asked to meet the group twice a month. He needs all the help he could get, he explained. We were all only too glad to oblige.

The job the new governor faces is indeed daunting, and he only has about 16 months to do it. His stories on the malpractices he has personally uncovered and is determined to put into the President’s “matuwid na daan” were mind-boggling. But then again, nothing can perhaps be more mind-boggling than the infamous November 2009 Maguindanao massacre, which has become a symbol of the extent of breakdown in governance in the ARMM. And Hataman has found the manifestations of that governance breakdown persisting to this day, and staring him in the face.

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He discovered salaries drawn over the years by large numbers of “teachers” who, upon checking payrolls against civil registries and immigration records, turned out to be long dead or residing overseas. He found school buildings recorded as built and operating (and disbursed corresponding budgetary funds for) where there were none.  He found that mandated selection boards for teachers had not been functioning, and exposed hundreds of fake teacher licenses in his home province of Basilan alone. He estimates that there must be around 3,000 to 4,000 of such fake licenses all over the ARMM. With so many such teachers “educating” the children in the ARMM all these years sans the proper credentials, is it any wonder why the worst education indicators can be found in the region, and that the region has seen the worst poverty nationwide?

And then there are the “flying pupils.” We have long had flying voters, or people who manage to vote more than once in different polling precincts during elections. Here’s one for the books: The ARMM has pupils who are on record to be simultaneously attending more than one school. The governor told us of an incident where they found classrooms inexplicably without pupils on a particular school day. He later found out that the pupils had all been brought to where Department of Education (DepEd) officials from the central office were conducting an inspection visit on another school, whose roster also included the same pupils missing from the other school that day.

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Why “flying pupils”? It turns out that school budgets are defined on a per pupil basis; hence, the more pupils a school can claim, the higher the budget it is allotted. As one might expect, aside from “flying pupils,” school rosters must also include a lot of “ghost pupils” or names of students who are either fictitious, are actually adults, are living elsewhere, or even dead. And not far behind “ghost pupils” must be entire “ghost schools.”

Beyond the DepEd, the governor also encountered budgets released for water supply systems on islands with no possible source of fresh water, and for other facilities claimed to be built where it absolutely made no sense to have them. In a meeting to allocate so-called “fiscal stimulus” funds allotted to the ARMM, he had been presented with a proposal to purchase ambulance helicopters for the island provinces to fly patients to the mainland. He promptly turned it down, arguing that the money would be better spent upgrading local hospital services and facilities so that patients need not be airlifted anywhere, and whereby many more patients would benefit. The proposal for helicopters exemplifies what he calls “pocket-driven” projects, determined not so much by actual people’s needs, but by opportunities to make the usual bukol or tongpats that accompany large procurement contracts.

To put an end to ghost teachers, Hataman is determined to install a foolproof biometrics system for teacher identification, and have all their salaries paid electronically. He will harness civil society participation in governance at every opportunity to ensure transparency and accountability in government processes. And he vows to focus budgetary resources during his interim tenure on “clusters of the willing,” referring to local governments who can make the most impact and demonstrate tangible efforts toward good governance. He shuns the traditional practice of “giving a piece to everyone,” spreading the limited budget so thinly as to have no discernible impact in the end. From what I have heard Hataman say and from how he said it, I am convinced that we now have a determined ARMM governor who is truly serious about good governance and meaningful reform.

As for us “senior advisers” whom he wants to meet every 15th and 30th of the month, we will certainly not be ghost workers, the kind who only show up on those same days to pick up their pay for non-existent work. In our case, it has been agreed that it will be the other way around: the pay will be the ghost.

(E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com)

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TAGS: featured column, governance, mujiv hataman, Muslim Mindanao, opinion
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