PDAF scholars

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling declaring the Priority Development Assistance Fund illegal, lawmakers from both houses of Congress have asked what will happen to their scholars whose education is being financed by pork barrel funds. The same lament has been aired with regard to patients whose medical needs are also being paid from such funds. I don’t think we have heard a clear answer from government, except a vague pledge that these needs will not go unattended. If not properly confronted, this situation could generate a backlash against all efforts to reform the manner in which government services are administered.

Some may believe that the processing of qualified beneficiaries is a minor administrative detail that should not get in the way of the policy intentions of these worthwhile programs. On the contrary, I think we ought to take the minor things seriously. If there is anything we have learned from the so-called Napoles scam, it is the way in which the little things could be staged in order to produce an aura of authenticity. Now we know that a lot of those PDAF documents that went into bureaucratic submissions and reports were fabricated.

As for the PDAF scholars and patients, I think that the fair thing to do is to determine who among them are eligible to receive public subsidy. It may seem heartless to do so at this point. But there is no choice; we have to bear in mind that we are talking of scarce public funds that could have gone to the truly needy or used for more important projects. Since we are not a welfare state, these funds were supposed to be allotted to deserving indigent individuals, regardless of political loyalty or affiliation.

Knowing how tedious the requirements of the socialized tuition fee program at the University of the Philippines can be for students to qualify for the measly assistance that is given, I can’t help wondering how PDAF scholars are chosen. My hunch is that many of the beneficiaries are selected primarily on the basis of political patronage. I have not heard of any concern or effort by lawmakers to make sure this is not the case.

The government seems to take patronage as a given, a political reality that has its own functionality. Politicians think that the Supreme Court might have been overly legalistic when it declared the PDAF unconstitutional. They tell us not to equate patronage with corruption. Herein, I think, lies the current difficulty with governance reform—our inability to see that the old personalized forms of dispensing public goods are no longer suitable to the needs of a complex society. What is patronage but the power to exempt favored individuals from the rules? By modern definition, this is corruption at its core.

It is interesting that the 2012 report of the Commission on Audit that was released in the thick of the holiday season noted some irregularities in the 2011 disbursement of financial assistance to scholars listed under the student financial assistance programs of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd). This is welcome news, but it is difficult to believe the government auditors are seeing these for the first time. The funds used were reportedly sourced from the PDAF and the equally controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program. We would never have known.

I quote from a Philippine Star news item (12/31/2013): “The 2012 COA report released over the weekend particularly questioned how the selection, screening, awarding and determination of the amount of the grant to each student beneficiary, which are normally the functions of the CHED were entrusted to the office of the legislator through a memorandum of agreement (MOA). Such practice of giving lawmakers discretionary power led to the granting of financial assistance ranging from P16,000 to P110,000 per semester per grantee, more than the maximum allowable benefit of P15,000 per semester given by CHED to full merit scholars.”

The news report does not mention how many legislators had such arrangements with the CHEd through its regional offices. But I think we can safely assume that the names of the scholars were generated exclusively by the lawmakers themselves and were not further vetted by the CHEd. We may also assume—from the tone of the COA report—that the beneficiaries were not subjected to the kind of stringent requirements one associates with scholarships, such as the maintenance of a minimum grade average. Yet I’m almost certain that every such scholar would have been expected to work in the electoral campaign of their political sponsor.

We see in the 2012 COA report the beginning of a serious attempt to make all lawmakers accountable for the use of their PDAF—including those who have not been accused of pocketing or diverting these funds. “The COA report recommended among others that the CHEd’s office of student services revisit the MOA and the CHEd guidelines for student financial assistance programs for amendment and/or clarification to determine all the excessive grants given to student beneficiaries, and to effect their refund.”

I doubt very much that we will ever see any refunds. We hope, however, that, whether deserving or not, these students would remain in the country after they graduate—to serve the nation and not just their patrons. We have a long way to go before we can say we are governing ourselves like a responsible modern state. But the journey has begun, and there is no going back.

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