Commentary

Farmers engaging government

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We get the government we deserve. This is a saying that farmers are now acting upon with greater vigor. During the fertilizer scam period, they bravely came out to denounce the corruption by specific unscrupulous officials in the Department of Agriculture, local government units, and even Congress. They succeeded only because of the help of the Senate, led by Senator Jun Magsaysay, and COA, led by officials like Heidi Mendoza.

DA budget

The Alyansa Agrikultura, a farmer-fisherfolk coalition of 42 federations and organizations covering all agricultural sectors, was one of three peoples’ organizations (POs) and non-government organizations (NGOs) accredited to engage the DA in budget deliberation. However, Alyansa objected to this selectivity, and succeeded in opening up this interaction to all interested POs and NGOs.

On April 8, welcome changes were noted during the last National Agriculture and Fisheries Council (NAFC) meeting. NAFC is a government-private sector body created by law to, among other things, formulate and monitor the DA budget. During the previous administration, the NAFC would meet very irregularly—once not convening for more than two years. We suspect that this happened because the DA did not want the private sector to see how the DA budget was being spent. Because of little transparency, the DA became riddled rich with corruption.

Under Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala’s leadership, transparency has increased and corruption decreased. NAFC meetings are now called frequently, and private sector recommendations listened to.

Monitoring

The NAFC is tasked not just to help formulate, but also monitor, the DA budget. This is where assertive farmer engagement is needed. The Alyansa had proposed the creation of a NAFC budget committee during the start of the current administration precisely for this purpose. That it was immediately created is the good news. The bad news is that it was one year and eight months between the committee’s first and second meetings, the latter being held only last April 4. In addition, the minutes of the Aug. 23, 2011 meeting, which contained several beneficial recommendations, were released only on April 4. Consequently, there was little accountability done for these recommendations.

Agriculture Undersecretary Segfredo Serrano has instituted welcome changes. He directed the transmittal of the minutes of the last meeting the very next day. He also scheduled quarterly meetings for both the formulation and monitoring of the DA budget.

Obstacle

There is, however, a major obstacle to effective monitoring. Alyansa had reported that a P1.5-million monitoring budget had been allocated to each Regional Agriculture and Fisheries Council (RAFC) under the previous administration. The total DA budget in 2010 was then P50 million. With the RAFC monitoring budget, RAFC chair Jesus Simeon said the RAFCs reported many anomalies at the provincial level to the DA national office. But hardly any action was taken.

Under the government’s “Daang Matuwid” thrust, the RAFCs were more motivated to continue their monitoring. However, the RAFCs got an annual budget of only P220,000 instead of the previous P1.5 million. If P1.5 million was given to monitor a P50-million 2010 budget then, why was only P220,000 given to monitor the DA’s proposed budget of P96.4 billion for 2014?

Despite Alcala’s directive to look into this, the official written response last April 4 to Alyansa’s recommendation was: “NAFC proposed to increase the monitoring funds for the Agriculture Fisheries Council, but the current situation does not allow such increase due to liquidation problems.” We were later informed that the Commission on Audit did not allow DA to implement this recommendation.

Recommendation

The farmers should go beyond engaging DA and expand this engagement to all government agencies affecting farmers’ welfare, including the COA. If the farmers engage COA properly, we believe that COA can help DA devise a mechanism which will allow the RAFCs to monitor the budget. Without this engagement by the farmers, the DA budget may be released as formulated, but wasted on corruption and inefficiency. Engagement is necessary to ensure transparency, which in turn is required to achieve effectiveness and a better life for the farmers and fisherfolk.

(The author is chair of Agriwatch, former Secretary for Presidential Flagship Programs and Projects, and former Undersecretary for Agriculture, Trade and Industry. For inquiries and suggestions, email agriwatch_phil@yahoo.com or telefax (02) 8522112).

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