MANILA, Sept. 11, 2013—Hundreds of Filipinos gathered at the historic EDSA shrine on Wednesday to strengthen their clamor for the abolition of lump-sum allocations in government finances.
“EDSA Tayo,” an interfaith prayer vigil organized by a group of artists and media practitioners, echoed calls of various religious groups for the abolition of the graft-tainted pork barrel system, demanding transparency and accountability in the government.
The event followed the citizen-led initiative Million People March that gathered thousands of Filipinos in Luneta last August 26 to express their widespread disgust over the alleged channeling of lawmakers’ pork barrel (formally known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF) to dubious non-governmental organizations and foundations.
Joining the people in the “EDSA Tayo” mass gathering, Retired Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez urged the public to continue initiating movements that could awaken the social consciousness of Filipinos against corruption in the government.
He called on the public to unite in probing the appalling cases of fund misuse and act upon the social ill of corruption that perennially hounds the country’s political landscape.
“I feel glad for it seems that we are slowly being awakened with what is happening. But I am hoping that we will continue scrutinizing and examining the issue so we would be able to understand and guide our political leaders in moving toward the right direction,” Iñiguez said in the vernacular.
The prelate called on the people not to get tired of initiating movements that push for the total abolition of the pork barrel scheme, noting that continuous action must be done by the public to win the cause they are fighting for.
“I hope Filipinos will not get tired of doing this. The purpose of this event is really consciousness awakening. There are those who are already awakened as manifested by their participation in this event. As for those who remain indifferent, may they also be awakened by this challenge that confronts us,” he said.
Iñiguez noted the public must not pass judgments basing from the initial findings of the government on the pork barrel investigation, saying that the truth must first be revealed before planning specific actions to be done.
“Let us first look for the truth, and based on the truth, let us judge what is happening. From there, (we will have to think) righteously of what should be done,” he said.
The prelate said the public must be vigilant in monitoring the acts done by the government to settle controversies regarding the appalling misuse of public funds.
“The reason why we continuously support movements such as this is because the pork barrel scheme remains intact up to now. This has to be changed and we should closely monitor the steps being done by the government to address this challenge,” he said.
In a lecture given before “EDSA Tayo” protesters, former National Treasurer and Lead Convenor of Social Watch Philippines Leonor Briones said it is not enough to abolish the pork barrel for it just constitutes a small amount in the entirety of lump sum appropriations in the P2.268 trillion national budget proposed for 2014.
According to Briones, what must be done is to abolish the Special Purpose Fund (SPF) which amounts to approximately P310 billion. The pork barrel, amounting to P25 billion in the incoming budget, is only about 8.06 percent of the total SPF.
“It is important to look at the entirety of all lump sum appropriations that total to a notably bigger amount,” she said in the vernacular.
“If we will remove the pork barrel, what will we do with the special purpose fund? If we don’t remove the latter, it might just give birth to another pork barrel bearing a different name. This is the reason why we have to look closely. This is just the beginning,” Briones said.
All expenditures and disbursements in the SPF are under the approval of the president. He has the power to decide on how the money will be spent by the government, Briones noted.
Distribution to line agencies
She said allocating lump sum amounts to a single government office increases the “vulnerability” of the government to corruption, adding that it would be better if the SPF will instead be distributed to “line agencies” that are subject to closer scrutiny and are “accountable on a yearly basis.”
“If we would unite in rallying for this cause, it is still possible to remove the pork barrel in the 2014 budget. Government funds must not be allocated in bulk to a single government office. They must be distributed to various line agencies,” Briones said, citing government agencies such as the Department of Health and Department of Education where a notable under spending has been observed.
Briones cited the P7.5 billion calamity fund included in the SPF as an example on why it is better to distribute the presidential pork barrel to various line agencies.
“Why don’t they just give the calamity fund to local governments or to the disaster risk reduction management of the DND (Department of National Defense)? …If it is being held by the president, it will take a long time before the fund reaches its intended recipient,” she said.
“The president has a lot of pressing matters to attend to…Before he could take action, before he could visit a calamity-stricken area, it might be the case that many people have already died or have lost their homes. The disbursement of money is really slow if it is the highest government official who holds it,” she added.
Through the direct distribution of the SPF, there is a higher possibility for public funds to reach Filipinos from all walks of life, Briones noted.
Responding to apprehensions that line agencies might engage with the same issue of corruption, she said that it is a better risk that the government has to take as line agencies are subject to a more frequent and stricter auditing.
“Regular agencies have a yearly audit report. This gives the public a more transparent view on the various transactions they are getting into,” she said.
SPF, on the other hand, is subject to an audit report due every three years. By the time SPF irregularities are exposed, the public loses the chance to recover what has been lost, Briones noted.
Briones likened the issue of corruption to a social cancer that rids the country’s financial system with a lot of “lump” sum allocations.
“The financial system of our country is filled with lumps. We have to remove this for our own benefit. Once this is successfully abolished, it should not return again so we will be able to expect something good for our future,” she said.
Iñiguez reiterated the call for government leaders to unite as one in rallying against corruption and in ensuring that public funds are really spent for the benefit of the public.
“Those who are in position are expected to unite others. This is certainly a call for them to assess if public money is being used to improve the plight of our people,” he said.
Imploring Divine providence
Junep Ocampo, one of the organizers of the “EDSA Tayo” movement, said unity among people is very important in times when threats of corruption destroy the foundation of the state.
He said that Divine Providence is needed to solve the issue for it has become immense to the point that human power alone could not solve it.
“The problem of pork barrel is so huge that you cannot approach it with human powers. We need divine help. That’s why we are here, we are imploring Divine providence, we are imploring the power of God to help us transcend our diversity and unite us,” he said, noting that the issue at hand is not just a problem of the government, but of each and everyone in the society.
He urged the people to continue the protest through their own simple means within their respective communities.
“We want the people to hold small vigils in their families, churches, and schools, study the pork barrel issue, and reflect on what this issue means to them. We are all victims affected by this. We have to participate and not just watch what is happening around us,” he said.
“This is a very good start. The ‘EDSA Tayo’ movement does not end here,” Ocampo said. (Jennifer Orillaza)