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Presidential debate, FOI and agriculture

ONE OF the hottest issues in the last March 20 Presidentiable debate was corruption.

All the presidentiables pointed out that the transparency benefit of the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) would minimize this corruption.

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This has great relevance to the Department of Agriculture (DA) because of the fertilizer, pork barrel and Napoles scams.

These were especially offensive to farmers and fisherfolk, who were used as an excuse for stealing the money meant for them.

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However, there is no need to wait for the FOI Bill to reduce corruption in agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala has helped in this area, but more needs to be done.

The private sector should ask for important DA budget information so they can participate in this undertaking.

First, they should invoke Article III Section 7 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

This states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized … access to official records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, sections, or decisions … shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

Second, they should cite an already existing law that gives the public-private sector National Agriculture and Fishery Council (NAFC) the right to get information on the DA budget to make possible effective monitoring that can reduce corruption.

This is the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act of 1997. This states that this Council is responsible for “the broad-based monitoring and coordination of the agricultural and fisheries modernization process.”

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This reinforces the originally stated purpose of the Council as early as 1987.

It is “an advisory body at the regional, provincial, and municipal level primarily to promote private sector participation in agricultural and fishery development through… monitoring and project evaluation.”

Situation analysis

During the previous administration, NAFC hardly exercised its mandated function of monitoring the DA budget.

When Alyansa Agrikultura (AA) joined as an official NAFC member to help correct this situation, all NAFC meetings were stopped.

Under the current government, NAFC resumed its meetings, but only annually.

After more than two years of practically no significant NAFC budget monitoring, the AA succeeded in proposing a NAFC National Budget Committee.

When the Napoles scam broke out, the AA asked for a DA investigation.

A DA Undersecretary responded: “You should not be involved in this. It is only politics.”

The AA representative disagreed. Unfortunately, up to now, no investigation results have been given to NAFC.

More disappointing is the fact that the DA Regional Executive Directors (REDs) were not giving the list of DA approved projects to the regional and provincial Agriculture Fishery Councils (AFCs).

This prevented the AFCs from monitoring budget use for these projects, simply because they didn’t know what these projects were.

Finally, in March 2015, Secretary Alcala ordered the REDs to give these lists to the AFCs.

Sadly, many REDs did not comply with this order.

Below is a table that summarizes findings reported by the NAFC Budget Committee in 11 provinces from 5 regions.

Last May and August 2015, the REDs did not give these lists to the RAFCs and PAFCs.

On Sept. 30, we reported this in an Inquirer commentary. For Nov. 2015 and March this year, we have seen a significant turnaround.

The good news is that the budget monitoring done for these latter months has yielded favorable results.

Transparency

The transparency which the FOI Bill will provide can already be gotten by following the existing AFMA Law.

From the experience received during the NAFC Budget Committee monitoring visits to the provinces, a key finding was made: Whenever the AFC, farmers, and fisherfolk knew about the DA funded projects, the transparency enabled them to identify wastage and corruption.

This has both a corrective and deterrent value.

When the implementors knew they were being watched by the private sector stakeholders, they used the DA budget wisely.

But when the projects were not known, wastage and corruption were rampant.

There is no record today of which REDs have complied with Secretary Alcala’s directive of giving the list of DA-funded projects to the AFCs.

In the three months left in the current administration, the DA must schedule selective monitoring of DA-funded projects in all the regions.

This will provide a headstart on which areas the new administration must focus on.

While the winning presidentiable works for the quick approval of an FOI bill, he or she can already get the transparency benefit of this bill by strictly implementing the existing AFMA Law.

This is an important tool that should immediately be used in reducing corruption in agriculture.

(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 [email protected] or telefax (02) 8522112).

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