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I didn’t join the Million People March: A Development Worker’s Defense of the PDAF

(Disclaimer: My views do not reflect those of my affiliations.)

I did not attend the “Million People March,” that gathering in Luneta last August 26 that brought together concerned Filipinos for the call to abolish the PDAF. Most people think I am simply a right-wing sell-out; I work for the government, for one, and I don’t think they would listen to someone from the government who defends the government. But here’s the thing. I saw for myself how PDAF lived up to its name of being a development assistance fund, because it was allocated strictly and responsibly.

Lately we saw the dirty side of the PDAF through these fake NGOs and the Napoles scandal. Many Filipinos have called for the abolition of the PDAF, as it has become an avenue for corrupt politicians and legislators to rake in money intended for the poor and marginalized.

To this sentiment, I say, blame the corrupt politicians, not PDAF.

PDAF’s mechanisms are flawed, I agree. It directly or indirectly encourages patronage politics through its discretionary nature. The lack of a sufficient paper trail makes accountability an issue. Moreover, there are no guidelines on geographic allocation, so the decision of the legislator , i.e. no guidelines on geographic allocation. These pitfalls, however, should not discount the fact that the PDAF that is released through good intentions and means has changed lives of millions of Filipinos, for the better.

PDAF is the source of the funds that you see used for building hospitals and schools/universities from Basco to Bongao. It’s the same money pool that expands the DSWD social services for indigents. With PDAF, roads get constructed, livelihood programs get implemented, and water systems get grounded – and quickly.

These may not mean much to us in Manila, but for my brothers and sisters in Mindanao, having good roads, decent livelihoods, and clean water are dreams that LGUs fail to fulfill. PDAF makes these dreams possible. I am lucky enough to be with a legislator who works to make these dreams come true through the responsible use of his PDAF. Sad thing is, my boss is just one good story; not all legislators are like him.

If only we got to elect legislators of caliber who are responsible enough to think for others, to think for the people in Alegria, Surigao del Norte, or in Patikul, Sulu. Or if we can streamline the methods for PDAF release and make it more accountable. I do not agree with the idea that PDAF should be allocated as line items in the budgets of executive branch agencies, as it discounts the nature of the need of constituents. What happens when a bridge suddenly collapses in Samar? Should we wait for the next fiscal year to refurbish it? PDAF provides immediate relief for people too often failed by the bureaucracy in Manila.

If only we can allocate a substantial part of the national budget to areas which are in real dire need like the municipalities in CARAGA, in Davao Oriental, or in Maguindanao. Or if we can empower local governments to be equipped with the technical expertise in implementing projects on their own so they can be the ones to identify the projects most needed in their area.

If only we have all of these in place, I don’t think PDAF would be so much of an issue today.

If the ‘Million People March’ and translated the massive support they got both online and offline into actual policy, it would seem the abolition of PDAF becomes unavoidable. What is left for us is to work with what is at hand and hopefully continue to bridge assistance to poor patients in PGH, to young, smart students in MSU Tawi-Tawi, to widows who would need burial assistance for their late husbands, to LGUs without ambulances, through other means that would not involve discretionary funds.

This is the side of PDAF that was obscured by Janet Napoles and her ilk. We will remember how angry and Napoles made us feel. But we will never realize how we, the privileged classes with Facebook access, made those who benefit from PDAF feel when we decided to march and abolish PDAF. We cried foul and wanted blood because legislators ‘stole’ the taxpayers’ money — our money –but let’s ask ourselves, what happens now to those whose kids were saved by PDAF in hospitals, or those students who rely on scholarship assistance in state universities?

Scrap PDAF, and they are scrapped as well.

Let’s remember we are talking about lives here. Lives that we cannot suspend just because we want PDAF to be abolished. When we say we want to scrap PDAF, at least someone should stand and say how we can cover for those who rely on the funds, and we mean a measure that could be implemented as soon as PDAF gets scrapped. There should be no lagtime, no blackhole, no implementation gap, in the transition from PDAF assistance to the new form of assistance for indigents.

At the same time, legislative remedies should be introduced as a complementary track towards the abolition of the PDAF. Increase the education budget to 6% of gross national product so no student would need to seek a Congressman’s support for his studies. Advocate for effective implementation of the Cheaper Medicines Act and introduce reforms in the health sector so no poor mother would think twice of bringing her son to a public hospital for treatment. Empower local government units so they can have the technical expertise to effectively and efficiently handle their own projects.

However, all of these are easier said than done. What the protesters in the March want is that PDAF will be abolished and that’s all. No more follow through for those in classes D and E who access the PDAF in times of need. Worse, there would be no social reform in the guise of voters’ education, good governance and informed citizenry, because the goal–scrapping PDAF–was met already. And worst of all, the same old corrupt politicians will continue roaming the halls of Congress, thinking of new ways to steal from public funds, while poor children die of congenital heart disease in the Philippine Heart Center.

This is why I did not join the ‘Million People March’. Not only because I feel the lack of concern of the ‘taxpayers’ for those who legitimately need assistance, but also because this PDAF scandal is not a simple corruption issue that could be solved by removing the money pool. PDAF, when used responsibly, could really bridge social inequalities. Let’s not act as if PDAF is all evil and with no public service component. It’s not the fault of PDAF that it was misused by corrupt politicians; blame the human, not the abstract.

Postscript: I have some serious semantic issues: I don’t want to call the Priority Development Assistance Fund – the PDAF – as “Pork Barrel.” As a Muslim, I shy away from pork, and to call something that I see and believe to be beneficial to my countrymen as ‘pork’ is abominable for me.

About the author

Maryam RS Bermudez, professionally known as Reinna, is a balik-Islam (Muslim reconvert) peace advocate and political officer working on Mindanao peace and development. She graduated with a degree in Political Science from the University of the Philippines – Diliman in 2011 and is currently pursuing funding for her deferred admission to a Masters program at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. She is currently working at the Senate of the Philippines.

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