Redirect pork barrel funds

To Take A Stand
Mario Antonio G. Lopez

Posted on April 23, 2013

DR. AVELINO Zapanta’s presentation on the pork barrel goaded me to writing this piece using much of the data he presented, interspersing it with my own thoughts.

Congressional “pork barrel” funds are known by a variety of names, including “development funds.” They are meant to be spent on development projects that genuinely and substantially contribute towards a more progressive life for each and every Filipino. They are meant to be spent on items like the following:

• Education -- e.g. scholarships, for students and teachers (I prefer teachers because of the multiplier effects), purchase of teaching equipment and materials;

• Health -- e.g. financial assistance to indigent patients, purchase of medical equipment for government health facilities;

• Sustainable livelihood generation, not “flashes in the pan” projects;

• Basic social services investments like rural electrification; installing potable water supply systems; socialized housing;

• Public works -- e.g. roads, bridges, flood control, school buildings, hospitals, health facilities, public markets, multi-purpose buildings and pavements, irrigation in places where they will have the greatest impact on the lives of the poor;

• Peace & order, including purchases of fire-fighting equipment and supplies, and repair and/or constriction of fire houses; police transport and patrol vehicles, communications equipment, and construction/repair of police stations ; and improving prison houses;

• Forest management;

• Promotion of (local) arts and culture; and

• Financial assistance for specific programs and projects of LGUs that are in keeping with other items on this list.

These, chosen from a well-conceived priority list that incorporates the judicious mix of national programs and local needs, properly planned and well executed, are good ways of spending the funds. The priority list must reflect thorough needs analyses per area in consultation with the widest range of stakeholders possible, but especially including the marginalized and the otherwise voiceless.

Pork barrel funds are huge. Twenty-four senators each receive 200 million each per year, while 287 congressmen each receive 70 million each. That is around 24 billion, a big amount that can help jump start the economy properly spent.

What have been the most obvious uses, and, in some cases, not obvious and possible misuses, of these funds? To cite a few:

• Basketball courts (often justified because they may be used as grain drying facilities during the dry season and assembly areas for community affairs and noted by many as not the most cost effective use of limited funds);

• Waiting sheds (which do not really protect from angled sunlight and rains with winds);

• Farm-to-market roads (that are either poorly constructed or not at all);

• Scholarships (which are neither evaluated nor monitored); and

• School buildings (alleged to be poorly constructed and often in need of major repairs in a short time).

It has been alleged that in a few cases, pork barrel funds went to bogus NGOs, an allegation that has led other lawmakers to call for a probe. Someone wryly said, “As if they are clueless as to how it happened.”

This election season, mainly the same batch of legislators or their extensions (i.e. members of the “family business” as has been stated in social media) are running for office. They are making the same general promises that have often remained unfulfilled. One can expect that the forthcoming Congress will be composed of more or less the same kind of people. They are not likely to vote out pork barrel funds.

But we can and we must influence how they decide to spend it. We can and we must voice our preferences clearly and loudly as the people they promised to serve in the first place.

We will not be able to insist that our legislators redirect all pork barrel funds away from projects they have tended to prefer. But it is feasible and probable to ask them to put a portion of these in projects that have larger area and sustainable impacts in collaborative investments.

It is not too difficult to identify which infrastructure projects will have some immediate effect on people’s lives in an area that also ensures sustainable growth, development and social restructuring that allow individual bragging rights. It is also not difficult to publish construction specifications for all-weather farm-to-market roads and irrigation systems that may cover several districts where several representatives and at least one or two senator may invest some of their funds; school houses, health centers and potable water systems that are district specific (thus allowing star billing for the representatives concerned) and enlist NGOs and people’s associations to monitor progress of construction.

Legislators from disaster-prone areas ought to consider helping our AFP and Coast Guard in procuring badly needed search and rescue and air transport and watercraft that have proven of great help in those unwanted but inevitable times.

These will help DBM reallocate funds for equally needed investments of national import like badly needed radar systems of different kinds for different uses, and armaments for our air force and navy so that we can, finally, defend our territory credibly.

These should be worthy projects to spend pork barrel funds on.